Sliding into theaters on a river of slime and an endless supply of good vibes, the new, cheerfully silly “Ghostbusters” is that rarest of big-studio offerings – a movie that is a lot of enjoyable, disposable fun. And enjoy it while you can because this doesn’t happen often, even in summer, which is supposed to be our season of collective moviegoing happiness. The season when everyone jumps on board (whee!) and agrees that, yes, this great goof is exactly what you were thinking when you wondered why they didn’t make summer movies like they used to.
Oh, wait, because whatever else you can say about the new “Ghostbusters,” it’s a lot like the old “Ghostbusters,” except that it stars four funny women instead of, you know, four funny men. In other words, it doesn’t have a lot of XY chromosomes and basso profondo voices, though its token hottie, played by a game, nimbly funny Chris Hemsworth, pulls his weight on both those counts. Otherwise, the redo is pretty much what you might expect from Paul Feig, one of the best things to happen to American big-screen comedy since Harold Ramis.
Ramis helped write the old “Ghostbusters” and played one of its “professional paranormal eliminators” – as Larry King describes them in the movie – alongside Dan Aykroyd (co-writer), Ernie Hudson and Bill Murray. A triumph of casting and timing, the first “Ghostbusters” remains memorable for Ray Parker Jr.’s inane, dementedly catchy theme song (“Who you gonna call?”) and for Murray, who dominates it even more than its Godzilla-sized Marshmallow Man monster does. It’s peak Bill Murray with a minimalism that exerts a powerful gravitational force and a deadpan that recast Mad Magazine’s what-me-worry grin with the sickness-unto-death laughter of National Lampoon.
No one performance dominates the new “Ghostbusters,” which is for the most part democratically comic (a Paul Feig signature), although Kate McKinnon’s magnificent, eccentric turn comes close. She plays Holtzmann, the in-house mad-hatter who whips up the ghost-busting hardware (proton packs included) with a crazy leer and page after script page of playful-sounding gobbledygook. McKinnon makes for a sublime nerd goddess (she brings a dash of the young Jerry Lewis to the role with a glint of Amy Poehler) and, in an earlier age, would probably have been sidelined as a sexy, ditsy secretary. Here, she embodies the new “Ghostbusters” at its best: Girls rule, women are funny, get over it.
Written by Feig and Katie Dippold, the redo follows much of the original’s shambling arc and even revs up with a haunted-house boo, except that this time the scares happen in a mansion, not a library. After the usual narrative table setting, Holtzmann and her partner in kook-science, Abby (Melissa McCarthy), join forces first with another scientist, Erin (Kristen Wiig), and then a transit worker, Patty (Leslie Jones). Voilà, the new Ghostbusters are in business, complete with a vintage Cadillac, some funky digs and a cute secretary, Kevin (Hemsworth). Ghosts and mayhem ensue along with turns from the likes of Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia and Matt Walsh.
It’s at once satisfyingly familiar and satisfyingly different, kind of like a new production of “Macbeth” or a Christopher Nolan rethink of Batman. As it turns out, the original “Ghostbusters” is one of those durable pop entertainments that can support the weight of not only a lesser follow-up (the 1989 sequel “Ghostbusters II”), but also a gender redo. That the new movie stars four women is a kind of gimmick, of course, but it’s one that the filmmakers and the excellent cast deepen with real comedy chemistry and emotionally fleshed-out performances, particularly from McCarthy and Wiig, who are playing old-friends-turned-sort-of foes who need to work some stuff out.
They do, which means that “Ghostbusters” is also a female-friendship movie, but without the usual genre pro forma tears, jealousies and boyfriends. Friendship here, even at its testiest, is a given, which means that Feig doesn’t have to worry it and can get on with bringing the funny with his stars and toys, his ghosts and laughs. As is often the case with big-budget flicks, it grows progressively louder and bigger, climaxing in an overlong battle, though not before Feig has offered up some unexpected touches, including a cavalcade of beautifully designed old-timey ghosts and a genuinely creepy bathroom scene that adds a few horror-flick shivers.
Part of what makes “Ghostbusters” enjoyable is that it allows women to be as simply and uncomplicatedly funny as men, though it would have been nice if Jones had been given more to do. (If this were a radical reboot, she would have played a scientist.) In the end, these are Ghostbusters, not Ghostbusting suffragists, even if there’s plenty of feminism on screen and off. It’s hard to know if the movie started off being as meta as it now plays, but when these Ghostbusters are labeled frauds – or crack jokes about ugly online comments or take on a fan boy from hell – it sure feels as if Feig and his team are blowing gleeful raspberries at the project’s early sexist attackers.
Big box-office hits are like ghosts: They haunt studio executives. It’s no surprise then that Sony Pictures wanted to resurrect the “Ghostbusters” franchise in some form, just as it’s no surprise that it took someone like Feig to figure out how to make it work, mostly, by not really messing with it. Even so, what he’s doing onscreen – by helping to redefine who gets to be funny in movies – is what makes him a thoughtful successor to Ramis, who made a series of memorable, soulful comedies about what it means to be a man (“Groundhog Day,” “Multiplicity”). Now, if we could just get women and men to be funny together, that would be revolutionary.
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Chris Hemsworth
Director: Paul Feig
Rated PG-13 (Ghost and zap-gun violence)