All reboots are haunted by the specter of the movie that inspired them, but Sony’s new gender-swapped “Ghostbusters” — which substitutes comediennes Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones for the previously all-male paranormal exterminator squad — suffers from a disappointingly strong case of déjà vu. While both funnier and scarier than Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original, this otherwise over-familiar remake from “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig doesn’t do nearly enough to innovate on what has come before, even going so far as to conjure most of the earlier film’s cast (including Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man) in cameos that undercut the new film’s chemistry.
For Feig, who has carved out his niche in the comedy sphere by helming such distaff-led laffers as “The Heat” and “Spy,” this property offers a unique opportunity to test how a major Hollywood franchise might fare if entrusted to a female-driven ensemble — although it would be wrong to blame this side-splitting quartet for the film’s likely underwhelming box office performance. The problem isn’t that Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson created characters too iconic to surpass; the fault lies in the fact that this new “Ghostbusters” doesn’t want us to forget them, crafting its new team in the earlier team’s shadow.
McCarthy is amusing as always, but veers dangerously close to repeating her same old shtick, while Wiig is a poor substitute for Murray’s horndog Dr. Peter Venkman, playing a brainiac incapable of maintaining a respectful professional relationship with members of the opposite sex. (It’s one of the movie’s more inspired gags to flip the sexual harassment in the other direction, offering up “Thor” hunk Chris Hemsworth as the group’s straight man, an assistant too dumb to realize he’s being objectified.) And yet the one-line idea that made the original such a success — a comedy team fights ghosts — is so rich that surely Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold could have taken the franchise in a totally new direction.
Instead, channeling the earlier film at every opportunity, “Ghostbusters” opens with an effects-driven phantom menace before introducing audiences to three scientists who’ve jeopardized their academic careers by believing in the paranormal. Like Venkman before her, Wiig’s tenure-track Erin Gilbert is the resident skeptic, while McCarthy and McKinnon — as labmates Abby Yates and Jillian Holtzmann — look and sound like loonies, setting out to prove that ghosts really do exist. Once kicked out of their respective institutions, the trio have no choice but to go into business for themselves, adopting roughly the same costumes, logo, and Ecto Mobile (a converted hearse) that their male counterparts did in the original, while spending far more time than that earlier film did explaining each of these choices.
At first, the funny ladies’ mission is simply to be taken seriously, as they investigate every ghost sighting in the newly hyper-haunted New York City area, including one from an MTA subway worker named Patty, played by Jones, who inexplicably decides to quit her job in favor of facing her biggest fear. Though Jones gets some of the film’s most memorable lines, her character channels a shameful racial stereotype — one that traces back to the days of blackface when it amused audiences to see African-American characters spook easily, bugging their eyes and running for their lives whenever confronted with a ghost — except that the ghosts here really are frightening (especially in 3D screenings of the film), when they literally appear to leap off the screen, projecting ectoplasm past the confines of the widescreen frame.
Turns out there’s a reason that business is booming for the Ghostbusters. In a cartoonishly feeble-minded plot twist that suggests Feig might be better suited to be directing the new “Scooby-Doo” reboot, a disgruntled white guy (Neil Casey), has been inviting noxious visitors from the spirit world to cross over for his own nefarious purposes. Once the ladies manage to track this sad sack down, the movie grinds to a halt as the heavily armed group of scientists (whose arsenal has gotten a major upgrade since the earlier film) try to talk him out of destroying the world. That’s pretty much the point where “Ghostbusters” stops being funny enough to sway the haters who’ve become such a vocal presence online — a phenomenon the film actually goes out of its way to acknowledge, as McCarthy dismisses such sexist comments as, “Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts,” that appear beneath the group’s YouTube videos.
Whereas Feig has previously managed to cross genre streams successfully (building up to exciting spy- and cop-movie set pieces in his earlier comedy hybrids), here he succumbs to the familiar curse of the digital-effects era: When there’s almost nothing the computer can’t conjure, it falls to the director to know when to stop. The film’s unwieldy finale begins with an amusing possession gag, as the spirit villain inhabits first McCarthy’s and then Hemsworth’s body, but then it quickly spirals out of control as a flood of computer-generated ghosts cross over and start wreaking havoc around Gotham’s Mercado Hotel — a melee reminiscent of Robert Schwentke’s similarly unwieldy high-concept bomb, “R.I.P.D.”
In an unnecessary nod to fans, Feig resurrects nearly every actor or entity from the 32-year-old original — except for Ramis, who died last year, and the all-but-retired Rick Moranis — while leaving little room for memorable new spirits (stay through the end credits to hear even Zuul’s name invoked). Those that do appear make little sense, including a winged dragon creature that crashes a heavy metal concert, and a Godzilla-scale anthropomorphic version of the animated series logo. In any number of strange ways (from McKinnon’s Egon-esque blonde coif, to the too-dominant role of uglier-than-ever ghoul Slimer), 1986’s “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon appears to have had every bit as much an influence on the team as the live-action original did. That’s enough to make one nervous for all the ways Sony intends to exploit the franchise in the future — which could be moot, considering the write-down they’re likely to take on this reboot.