The most politically contentious film of 2016 was not Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary about the European refugee crisis. It was not Free State of Jones, an examination of a forgotten chapter of the history of the United States Civil War. It was not Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s recreation of the Nat Turner rebellion. It was not even Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s overrated, but nevertheless shocking movie about a French video game executive and rape victim. The most bitterly debated film of 2016, by far, was Paul Feig’s feminist reboot of Ghostbusters, the 1984 comedy by Ivan Reitman about supernatural beings who turn into giant marshmallows.
By 1984, Bill Murray, the star of the original Ghostbusters, had already appeared in two films by Ivan Reitman. The first, which was released in 1979, was called Meatballs. Here he played Tripper Harrison, the head counselor at a third rate summer camp. Stripes, the second, released in 1981, featured Murray as John Winger, an unemployed cab driver and United States Army recruit. By the time Reitman cast him as Peter Venkman, an unemployed college professor and researcher in the paranormal, therefore, Murray had so much practice playing the same likable, fast-talking jerk that there was little that could go wrong. All he had to do was show up on set, tell the same jokes that had been getting laughs for the past five years, and let the writers and costume designers do the rest.
Ghostbusters opens with Venkman, a professor at Columbia, administering a psychological examination to two students, a short, dweeby looking male, who he continually humiliates, and a dumb blond he talks into a date after letting her think she has “ESP.” In fact, he’s almost ready to throw her across the table and fuck her right in the examination room when Dr. Raymond “Ray” Stantz, another paranormal investigator played by Dan Aykroyd, bursts in to tell him about a ghost who attacked a librarian at the New York Public Library. After he’s fired from his job at Columbia, Venkman, along with Stantz, and Egon Spengler, a third colleague played by Harold Ramis, set up on their own company in a vacant firehouse on North Moore Street in Tribeca.
Note: I have no idea why Reitman gave all three characters German American names. I suppose it’s some allusion to the German university or German philosophy, but Bill Murray, with his bulbous nose and fast talking style is so obviously an Irish American that it’s a little hard to remember that his character is named “Peter Venkman.” So I usually just call him “Bill Murray.”
If you had to name the “main idea” of the original Ghostbusters it would be “the male fear of female sexuality and Bill Murray’s comic ability to whistle us all past the graveyard.” Forget about Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler. They don’t really matter. Annie Potts has an amusing turn as a cranky receptionist and an actor named William Atherton is memorable as relentlessly vicious and power mad Environmental Protection lawyer – it was the Reagan years and most people believed that the most terrifying words you could imagine were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” – but the undisputed star of the movie is Bill Murray. Ernie Hudson, who plays Winston Zeddemore, the black ghostbuster, even talks about how his character was whittled down to almost nothing to give more screen time to Peter Venkman. The only other character in Ghostbusters even remotely as important as Venkman is Dana Barrett, a classical musician played by the Sigourney Weaver.
Barrett, who lives in one of those big beautiful buildings on Central Park West, is haunted by two things. The first is Zuul, a demonic servant to Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian shape-shifting god of destruction who has taken up residence in her building. The second, and more important, is Louis Tully, a nerdy accountant played by Rick Moranis who lives down the hall. That Tully, who’s all of about 5’4” tall, is hopelessly in love with the Amazonian Dana Barrett — comically unattractive male pursues beautiful, unattainable woman – is a running gag that got tediously familiar in the 1980s. Tully’s unwanted attentions are so relentless and so unwanted that they might give you a bit of a hint as to why millennial generation “intersectional feminists” hate “entitled” white male nerds as much as they do. Just about the only reason we don’t call Tully a “sexual harasser” probably has something to do with how we assume the six-foot-tall Sigourney Weaver could probably kick his ass. Nevertheless, when Bill Murray — who’s well over six feet and looks like he could handle himself in a bar fight — arrives to investigate the Sumerian demon in Dana Barrett’s refrigerator and begins to sexually harass her just as relentlessly as Louis Tully does we also give him a pass. I guess it’s because we’re supposed to think he’s “charming.”
If the original Ghostbusters is an entertaining, if soulless, movie it’s mostly because Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, the screenwriters, know something about pacing and comic timing. The ghosts, slimers, demons, Sumerian demigods, giant marshmallow men, and paranormal vapers are part McGuffin – an excuse for Murray’s comedy routine – and part symbolic representations of female sexuality. As the plot moves from “busting” the basically harmless, if annoying, slimers and vapors – they’re about as scary as the Cookie Monster — to the apocalyptic confrontation with Gozer on the roof of a Central Park West skyscraper, Sigourney Weaver is transformed from frigid and standoffish Manhattan yuppie to ravenously sexual demon who wants Bill Murray “inside her.” That Peter Venkman is more interested in taking Dana Barrett down off her pedestal than in fucking her is entirely the point. There’s never very much chemistry between Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver, and there isn’t even a hint of romance. The moment she’s finally available he loses interest. The real hero of the original Ghostbusters is Louis Tully, who finally gets to bed the unattainable, six foot tall Amazon of his dreams, entering the realm of the demonic and having such an earth-shattering orgasm that it almost destroys Manhattan, but of course, he’s ridiculous. Tough guys don’t fuck demons. Oh, and just in case you don’t guest the message, Gozer, when she finally appears, looks a bit like Willem Defoe in drag.
If there were ever a film ripe for a feminist deconstruction it’s Ghostbusters. Sadly, that film is not Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, the Paul Feig reboot starring Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon. That Ghostbusters: Answer the Call became an all important political litmus test in 2016 – for liberals a refusal to buy a ticket meant you were a sexist and for conservatives buying a ticket meant you were a “cuck” – doesn’t make it a good movie. As much as I would have loved for the Ghostbusters reboot to have taken apart irritating fast-talking frat boys like Bill Murray, it a dull, badly written, incoherent mess that’s almost impossible to sit through without falling asleep. This has nothing to do with the actors, who were viciously, and unfairly attacked on social media by conservatives, scapegoated for Sony’s obnoxious marketing campaign, and the feminist contention that if you didn’t see the film you hated women. No blame should be attached to the actors – actors are almost always contractually obligated to help promote big budget movies and these days that includes viral marketing campaigns on social media — but to the screenwriters, Feig, and Katie Dippold, a TV writer who clearly has no sense of how to pace a feature length blockbuster.
The one scene in Ghostbusters: Answer the Call that genuinely works might give some hints as to why the film is so bad. That scene is Bill Murray’s cameo. When I first saw Murray in the original Ghostbusters, and looked up his age, I was shocked to find out that he was only thirty-three. With his bulbous nose and thinning hairline, he looks like he’s in his forties or fifties. In 2016, when he briefly appears in Ghostbusters: Answer the Call as a professional skeptic intent on debunking the four lady ghostbusters as frauds, he looks like he’s dead, or at least like he hasn’t had an erection since 1985. Needless to say, therefore, he doesn’t sexually harass Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, or McKinnon. That might have been funny. Instead, Murray’s character, Martin Heiss – yet another German American name – makes the four woman doubt their own eyes. They’ve seen ghosts. They’ve been slimed by ghosts. They’ve “busted” ghosts, yet here’s this cranky old man telling them that ghosts don’t exist, that they’re all making it up. After a long, endlessly long debate – my God the screenwriting for this film is bad – between Dr. Erin Gilbert, Wiig, and Patty Tolan, Jones, they decide to show Martin Heiss a ghost they’ve captured. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, McKinnon, opens the same ghost catching box so familiar from the first movie. Nothing happens. Heiss laughs. We actually feel bad for the four women. Not only are they starring in such a badly written film. The ghost they thought they put inside the box has somehow disappeared. Then, all of a sudden, a slimer, a class three vapor, roars out of the box, exploding into Murray’s face, terrifying him so much he backs out of a nearby window and falls three stories to his death.
If the primary theme of the original Ghostbusters was “male fear of domineering women and female sexuality” the primary theme of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is female insecurity, the fear that however well a woman presents an argument, people simply won’t believe her. Let’s call it “the fear of being gaslighted by the universe.” That’s a perfectly good theme for a movie, one that Alfred Hitchcock explored brilliantly in his film Shadow of a Doubt. The problem is that it isn’t a very good theme for a feminist reboot of the original Ghostbusters. It’s not that Ghostbusters takes its feminism too seriously. As a matter of fact, I wish it had been more hostile to men. Casting Chris Hemsworth as an obnoxious, pretty boy hipster who doesn’t seem to be playing a male bimbo so much as someone suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, doesn’t really qualify. Classic “pre-code” movies like Safe in Hell or Baby Face have more violent hostility towards men in one or two scenes than Ghostbusters: Answer the Call has in two hours. I don’t really know why male nerds got so bent out of shape about it. The original Ghostbusters makes fun of unattractive men a lot more viciously than the reboot does. The problem with Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is that Feig and Dippold forget that the ghosts in the original Ghostbusters were patently ridiculous. You weren’t supposed to take them seriously. They were a plot device designed to provide a stage for Bill Murray. To make the question of whether or not men believe women who believe in ghosts a litmus test about whether or not men take women seriously is not only a problematic hook to hang your plot on. It’s probably sexist.
This is not to say that the idea doesn’t work in a few spots. When a demon appears at a heavy metal concert and the audience all think it’s part of the act, at least we get the joke, but there’s no way even a good scriptwriter – which Feig and Katie Dippold certainly aren’t – could make it work for a feature length movie. Where it ends up doing in Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is a lot of plot explaining dialogue. Just about the worst scene in the whole film is the one where Kristin Wiig talk about their childhoods over Papa John’s – and who orders Papa John’s in New York anyway? — pizza. As we listen to Wiig explain how she became “ghost girl” we begin to feel sorry for the screenwriters. They let a bad idea, one that requires more and more explanation the longer it goes on, simply get out of control, and I would guess that’s why the film became such a bitter object of contention over the Summer of 2016. Young men, who hadn’t seen the movie, wanted to hate it. Young women, who knew, deep down in their hearts, that the plot was badly written, forced themselves to defend it. The longer the debate went on, the less it was about the movie. The more the film’s defenders tried to justify the untenable idea that you could hang a movie around the question of whether or not men would believe in women who believe in ghosts the more the debate transformed itself into the question of whether or not men would buy tickets to see a film starring women.
Final Note: Pauline Kael thinks the 1989 sequel to Ghostbusters was better than the original, which she hated even more than I did. I don’t intend to watch it.