Most of the think pieces about the new “Ghostbusters” got written long before the film came out last weekend, as haters complained about women assuming the principal roles and were in turn criticized by those asking, “What is wrong with America?”
We are living in an interesting moment of transition in American culture. Creators and studios are more and more willing to consider new gender and racial twists on old ideas—a pattern that in some sense began for women five years ago with the enormous success of “Bridesmaids,” which starred Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, the leads in “Ghostbusters.” But not everyone is comfortable with these new possibilities. The sexism behind some of the attacks on the new “Ghostbusters” is astonishing.
Consider this piece from The Daily Wire, in which writer John Nolte wonders:
Why ruin it [“Ghostbusters”] with four unattractive and not-terribly-funny feminists? Had Hollywood made “Ghostbusters With Chicks” in the eighties, it would have had Vanity, Demi Moore, Phoebe Cates, and Apollonia busting ghosts in bikinis—and it would have been awesome. Other than the chubby one from “Bridesmaids,” I don’t even recognize the other three in this upcoming remake. I just know that every time they open their obnoxious and ignorant mouths men everywhere are having First-Wife Flashbacks.
Take a moment to imagine how such a paragraph gets printed on a site that wants to be taken seriously.
Even more shocking has been the racist attacks that African-American co-star Leslie Jones has suddenly found herself facing on social media, with people describing her as an “ugly ape,” hacking her account to make it seem like she was also saying awful things, and then attacking her for getting upset. Wrote Jones, “I feel like I’m in a personal hell. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. It’s just too much. It shouldn’t be like this. So hurt right now.”
(Twitter’s policy is not to do anything about harassment, noting users have the ability to block people. But the fact is, you block one and a hundred others pop up. It’s a terrible system. Meanwhile, Twitter worries about “important stuff” like whether you want hearts or smiley faces to signal you enjoyed a recent tweet.)
The irony is, the new “Ghostbusters” proves to be a lot of things that the old one (and its sequel) wanted to be but couldn’t quite pull off. Writer/actor Dan Ackroyd originally conceived of “Ghostbusters” as not only funny but dark and scary. This was the ’80s, and horror films, as well as Stephen King novels, were everywhere. Two years before the 1984 release of “Ghostbusters,” the Steven Spielberg-penned “Poltergeist” had been the eighth-highest-grossing film of the year, with a domestic gross of almost $77 million.
But the first “Ghostbusters” film never really produced scares. Actor Bill Murray—at the climax of his early “charming oddball” period—is so effective in goofing around and winking at the audience that the stakes never seem that high. Also, it’s nearly impossible to accept the idea of Sigourney Weaver as a damsel in distress: after “Alien,” she was never not going to be at least a little bit Ripley.
It’s not really a film about anything, either, other than perhaps the resilience and humor of New Yorkers. The original “Ghostbusters” is filled with nods to all kinds of classic New York groups, like cops, hotel clerks, garbage men and the mayor. What unifies them is their fearless can-do, screw-the-naysayer spirit. “We’re New York,” they tell us, “we’re not going anywhere. We ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”
But the new “Ghostbusters” is pretty scary at times. The ghosts are far more threatening than the fat blobs of goo (and marshmallow) that populate the original. People get attacked, in ways both funny and scary; they are hurled across rooms and injured. And the special effects are top-flight; the long end sequence, in which a host of ghosts take over New York, makes the original look like the work of a high school film club. Even the new film’s reworking of ideas from the original, like explaining how proton beams affect ghosts, is clearer and more fun.
The new film is also very funny, dare I say even more than the original (at least in the key of humor today). McCarthy, Wiig, Jones and her fellow “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon give specific, richly funny performances, as does Chris Hemsworth in what may be his best cinematic performance so far. At the same time, the characters are each given understated but deep wells of pathos. Wiig’s Dr. Erin Gilbert is someone who has gone through real hardship on her journey to working in this field; so has her longtime best friend, McCarthy’s Dr. Abby Yates. Jones, who in the trailers (as often on “SNL”) seems relegated to the uncomfortable role of “black person who is funny because she is stupid and overreacts to everything,” actually offers a performance of real depth and warmth. Hers is definitely a supporting role, but I honestly could have watched a whole movie built around her character of a friendly M.T.A. employee who has a love for the history and people of New York City.
Even McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, who is a scene stealer of Murrayian scale, delivering her lines with the crazy relish of Dr. Strangelove, is eventually disclosed to have a whole lot more going on beneath the surface.
And unlike the original, the new “Ghostbusters” is quietly about something—namely the pain of having oneself and one’s experiences discounted or mocked by a society that doesn’t know what to do with them, and the way that we each have the capacity to liberate one another from that exile, if we are willing to reach out and believe.
For what on the surface seems like the wackiest of comedies, it’s pretty potent territory, especially given the political landscape of our world and country today. While the online He-Man Women Hater’s Club may discount the whole idea of a female “Ghostbusters” as an empty, politically correct gesture, it seems to me the kind of story that might speak not only to women but to people of faith and others who know what it’s like to be ostracized because of who they are or what they’ve experienced.
As Jesus said, “The haters we will always have with us.” (I might be slightly paraphrasing.) But so, too, can we find welcome and community, “Ghostbusters 2.0” reminds us, if we are willing to look beyond ourselves and help build one.