WASHINGTON — If you ever doubted the universe’s sense of humor, consider the fact that “Ghostbusters” will try to knock “The Secret Life of Pets” off the box office throne. It’s literally “dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”
That was just one of a dozen memorable lines from Ivan Reitman’s horror comedy classic, which became the second highest grossing flick of 1984 (behind “Beverly Hills Cop”) and an instant pop culture staple, from its Slimer ghouls to its Ectomobile logo to its Ray Parker Jr. theme song.
So it only stands to reason (“Sorry, Venkman, I am terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought”) that the 2016 reboot would spark a Hollywood concoction of purist backlash and eager anticipation.
Detractors took further aim at the reimagined female foursome — inserting gender politics into the summer blockbuster mix — but “Bridesmaids” writer/director Paul Feig ain’t afraid of no remake. In fact, he inserts one of the mysoginistic internet comments — “Ain’t no b*tches gonna bust no ghosts” — so that the women can rightfully mock its stupidity.
Nostalgic purists should chill; the ladies are game.
Turns out, the Big Apple is haunted by another dose of freaky ghosts. Who ya gonna call? Try college physics professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), who’s put her ghost-hunting past behind her to study the “serious” sciences. Her tenure track position is abruptly revoked when her old pal, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), brings sells their co-authored ghost-hunting book online. Damn you, Amazon!
When Erin confronts her ex-colleague, she meets Abby’s mad-scientist partner Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), who joins them to investigate paranormal activity at a haunted Manhattan mansion. Advertising for help, the threesome adds a fourth member in Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a subway security guard who applies for the gig after spotting a spook along the underground tracks.
As the new band of Ghostbusters is assembled, it’s hard not to compare the four members to their archetypal counterparts from the 1984 original.
Replacing Bill Murray as the sarcastic smartass is Kristen Wiig, who straps the entire film on her back like a proton pack, proving she is arguably the best comic actress of her generation. Her tiny bow tie provides a dorky charm, while her awkward flirtations recall her sidesplitting “SNL” character Shana.
Replacing Dan Aykroyd as the well-meaning dunce is Melissa McCarthy, who turns in a refreshingly restrained performance. Forget “tell him about the twinkie;” this time, McCarthy is on a crusade against Chinese-delivery wantons. “Ghostbusters” marks her fourth comedy with Feig after “Bridesmaids” (2011), “The Heat” (2013) and “Spy” (2015), becoming the Chris Farley of our era.
Replacing the late Harold Ramis as the mad scientist is Kate McKinnon, who goes for broke in an effort so over-the-top that she steals the show — for good and for bad. While McKinnon is hilarious spoofing Hillary Clinton on “SNL,” she tries way too hard here with jarring fits of overacting, her performance undulating like the “salty parabolas” she munches (aka Pringles potato chips). At times, she recalls the goggle-wearing kid who scared Ralphie waiting in line for Santa in “A Christmas Story” (1983), awkwardly grinning, “I like the Tin Man!” To her credit, at least we can’t take our eyes off her as we wait to see what she’ll do next.
Finally, replacing Ernie Hudson as the street-wise late addition is Leslie Jones, who spits fire with some great one-liners, from pop culture references (“The power of pain compels you!”) to biting social commentary (“I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a woman thing, but I’m mad as hell”). Remember her wrestling Leo DiCaprio as the bear in the Oscars’ “Revenant” spoof? These ghosts don’t know who they’re messing with.
Together, the ladies’ camaraderie is unmistakable, pointing their proton blasters at the male crotch of Hollywood and pulling the trigger. There’s even a clever role reversal with Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) serving as eye candy as the ditsy receptionist, who ineptly covers his eyes in an attempt not to hear anything — one of the best gags since Robert Hays’ “drinking problem” in “Airplane!” (1980).
Still, when it comes to the “evil forces” against them, the new “Ghostbusters” lacks compared to the 1984 original. This time, we get Neil Casey as a social outcast plotting to open a cross-dimensional portal in Times Square. His sidewalk mumbling and serial notebook rants are amusing, but the role is forgettable compared to the Gatekeeper-Keymaster combo of Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis.
With such a talented cast (“Wire” fans, Omar comin’!), one wishes the script took more chances (“boo ya, emphasis on the boo” is an actual line). For a horror comedy, “Ghostbusters” never reaches the level of uproariously funny, nor is it ever genuinely scary. If you’ve got young kids, warn them about the opening scene at a haunted mansion and a scary subway tunnel, but “Jacob’s Ladder” this is not.
Co-written by Feig (“Bridesmaids”) and Katie Dippold (“The Heat”), the duo has found the right tone, but plays it way too safe. What’s more, there are a few puzzling inconsistencies from scene to scene.
Early on, Wiig has a breakthrough moment where she finally declares, “I believe in ghosts!” But a few scenes later, she recounts seeing a ghost every day as a kid. Wouldn’t she already believe in them?
Later, the gals balk at hearing their company called “Ghostbusters” on TV. But a few seconds later, Hemsworth answers the phone saying, “Hello, Ghostbusters?” Did they not hear his greeting?
These critiques are admittedly nitpicks compared to the larger problem of the script’s third act, which is a cluttered case of visual effects gone wild. The special effects have vastly improved since 1984 — let’s face it, Zuul’s guard-dog creatures are very dated — but there is too much CGI down the stretch here. Special effects are like Stay Puft marshmallows — you have to toast them just right. If you leave them on the stick too long, they catch fire and fall off. You’re killin’ me smalls. Less is s’more.
Of course, the 1984 original was just as ridiculous in its finale — Mr. Stay Puft is as hilariously ridiculous as final battles come — but we could laugh with it because it was our first time seeing anything quite like it. The sheer originality of fresh ideas anchored the sillier elements of the story in 1984, whereas now, with the originality stripped away, the silliness is just that — just plain silly.
It would have been better for the film to try to chart its own territory instead of doing a beat-by-beat rehash of 1984. At times, it feels like the “all-female cast” is the only attempt at doing anything different, while the story remains the same: from the opening haunt, to the gathering of the Ghostbusters gang, to the emergence of a super ghost, to the destruction of downtown New York.
Along these lines, the brief cameos of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd feel flat, forced and distracting. If you’re not going to bring them back as older versions of their original characters, why bother? No one wants to see Murray as a paranormal doubter, just like no one wants to see Aykroyd as a cabdriver.
So while the original Ghostbusters gang could justifiably say, “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass,” the new 2016 crew merely came, saw and gave us a summer popcorn movie that’s fun while it lasts but is quickly forgotten — almost as quickly as the ill-remembered sequel “Ghostbusters II” (1989).
As you leave the theater, you’ll likely face eager fans hoping you liked it.
Their question, “Is it good?” is much like Zuul asking, “Are you a god?”
You’re tempted to say no, but fearing the wrath, you remember Winston’s advice.
“When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!”