July 21 2016 09:28 AM

New 'Ghostbusters' busted by poor direction


I can’t label the new “Ghostbusters” reboot a disappointment, because I wasn’t going in with particularly high expectations. But it does feel like a missed opportunity. I was hoping — but not anticipating — that the film might raise the bar for reboots/remakes, capitalizing on an idea that Steven Soderbergh proposed. Instead of remaking great classics, remake films that had a great idea but were poorly executed and turn them into something great. The original “Ghostbusters” is fun and weirdly endearing, but it’s hardly what I would call “great” or “a classic.” This reboot could have capitalized on the original’s potential and ended up as a thrilling action/supernatural comedy, while simultaneously refuting the original’s uncomfortable sexism by handing the leading roles to women and scoring some feminist points in the mainstream movie world. But it doesn’t. The film is merely passable. As has become par for the course for director/co-writer Paul Feig, it’s a lovingly defiant feminist film, but Feig’s touch also means the movie fails as, well, a movie.

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is up for tenure at Columbia University when she finds that her old research partner, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), has republished their book on the paranormal, hilariously titled “Ghosts from the Past: Both Literally and Figuratively.” Trying to distance herself from her previous less-than-reputable research, she visits Abby to try to get her to take the book out of print. From there, she gets roped back into the world of Abby’s ghost research, along with engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). On one of their ghost hunts, they meet an MTA officer, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), who can aid in navigating New York and provide transportation. Thus, the Ghostbusters are formed, and the group goes on to save New York from a paranormal apocalypse.

That sounds like a pretty simple, easy-to-execute plot. But as written and paced by Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold, it’s completely scattershot and feels like a string of unrelated things. Scenes just bleed into each other with no apparent logic or structure, and the movie never really gels. It feels ephemeral, like there’s no cohesive idea behind it. It would have been nice to have a narrative backbone to give some discipline and structure to a film that often feels like the brain of an ADD dog in a squirrel park. It’s like Dippold and Feig watched the original several times, along with a few other modern blockbusters and comedies, and wrote in each plot beat and scene out of obligation and commercial incentive, rather than out of an creative inspiration. This would be less of an issue if it were constantly funny and thrilling. It is at times, but not nearly as often as it could and should be. It provides some intermittent chuckles and guffaws, but much of the comedy is awkward and forced.

And this is entirely due to Feig. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how he has become one the major modern comedy directors. He’s the apex of what is wrong in contemporary commercial comedies, the exemplar of the laziness that has infested studio filmmaking and direction. It’s generous to even call him a director, since it appears that he does little more on his films than point the camera at the actors and say “Action!” He isn’t a director who directs, but rather just a dude who shows up and lets the actors take over. His framing and editing are dull, his sound design only functional and his music is nothing more than background noise to avoid uncomfortable silence.

While aggravatingly uninspired, this style was at least easy to overlook in earlier films such as “Bridesmaids” and “Spy.” Feig’s films end up fine when he has a decent script to work from and funny actors at his disposal. But here he has only one of those elements, and he wastes it. The script is lackluster, like something a film school student hobbled together the night before it was due. Dialogue is clichéd and silly, most of the jokes are obvious and telegraphed and characterization is inconsistent.

The only thing left to save this movie is the talented cast, but Feig doesn’t seem to know how to handle them. This is surprising, seeing as he’s had such success with Wiig and McCarthy in the past, but both of them seeming to act and improv on autopilot. Jones gets little more to do than comic screaming. And while McKinnon is being touted as the scene-stealing breakout, she fails to be so, ironically, because she seems designed to be so. I get the sense that those who are praising her are recognizing and reacting more to what McKinnon is going for with her performance, rather than what she actually accomplishes. She’s set up as the weirdo of the group, and she goes from broke with that role, chewing the scenery like nobody’s business. I found her performance cringe-worthy and little more than an over-acted, big screen version of all the oddball creeps she plays on “Saturday Night Live.” Again, none of this is the fault of these very talented women, it’s the director. Even the best performers and actors cannot overcome a director’s lack of imagination, and Feig sets his cast up for failure, directing them to awkwardly deliver lines and editing with poor timing.

I make it sound terrible, but it’s not. “Ghostbusters” is just too lacking in vision for its own good. It’s really wonderful to see four women saving the world together, without the help of — and actually in spite of — men. And it does some things better than the original. It’s more consistently funny and has a more energetic and lively feel. But oddly enough, “Ghostbusters” achieves one of its goals in a way that’s funnier than anything in the actual movie. It shows that men are plenty capable of making mediocre and unimpressive films. How’s that for gender equality?