Ghostbusters is not busted and Leslie Jones is just fine
But the movie does lack bite
Easily angered denizens of the internet, especially those of you clinging to the 1984 Ghostbusters as though it’s the new and improved Dianetics and you’re all the second coming of L. Ron Hubbard — you’ve been had. All that huffing and puffing and moaning about how one of your classics was being ruined with the addition of girls (because everyone knows girls have cooties, like, duh, OK) and it all turned out … fine.
That’s it. The new Ghostbusters from Paul Feig, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, is perfectly fine. It is very much a Paul Feig Movie: not his best, but bearing all the signature trademarks we’ve come to expect from him. But before we get further into that, a word about Jones: Our worries about her, about the way she would be used, were overblown. Frankly, the Leslie Jones who appears in Ghostbusters isn’t all that different from the Leslie Jones who appears in Top Five, which, like Ghostbusters, is also set in New York. The most cringe-inducing aspects of Jones’ performance have already been revealed in the movie’s trailers, and when consumed in context with her co-stars, I’m inclined to shrug my shoulders.
Maybe I’ve just been worn down, but at this point, my sentiments regarding Jones amount to get money, Leslie. Get money. Jones is a six-foot tall, 42-year-old dark-skinned black woman in one of the biggest films of the summer. She inspires the deepest of rep sweats, but we still need her to win.
Feig is best known as the director of Bridesmaids, the 2011 film written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, that arrived at the perfect time to send up the wedding industrial complex by illustrating what it does to friendships across class boundaries. It launched McCarthy’s career as a movie star. And although Bridesmaids was wildly successful, McCarthy initially faced the same issue Jones recently publicized on Twitter in June: No one would make a dress for her for the 2012 Oscars. McCarthy and Feig went on to team up on The Heat and Spy.
Class and female friendship are the two consistent through lines in Feig’s films. McCarthy plays underdogs or working-class heroes who have been overlooked. In The Heat, she constantly gives Sandra Bullock’s character a hard time for being too soft, and McCarthy takes Bullock to visit her working-class family in South Boston. In Spy, McCarthy plays a secret agent who finally gets her chance to do field work because no one else is available. Her cover, designed by her colleagues, is that she’s a shlumpadinka American cat lady with hemorrhoid pads and stool softener in her purse.
So it’s understandable that Feig, who grew up in a working-class suburb of Detroit, would want to do with Jones what he’s done with McCarthy and make her a working-class hero, too. Patty is an MTA agent who sees a ghost and wants to join McKinnon, McCarthy, and Wiig, who all play scientists. Feig could have arguably been more sensitive about how race affects our interpretations of class, but Jones, McKinnon, McCarthy and Wiig all feel like previous versions of themselves that we’ve seen either in other movies or on Saturday Night Live.
Abby (McCarthy) is earnest and determined and jokes about food. Wiig uncomfortably babbles around Kevin the office sex idiot, played by Chris Hemsworth. The gun-licking Jillian, god bless her, is a glorious parade of McKinnon’s freakiest Saturday Night Live affectations. And there’s nothing unexpected from Jones, either. There is some injustice to the fact that in a movie built on girl power, Hemsworth has most of the best lines.
If anything, the girl power aspect of Ghostbusters is what does it in, if only because you’re left wishing Feig had leaned into it even more. The second act is a bit wishy-washy and unfocused. It suffers from a lack of clarity around its villain, Rowan (Neil Casey), a would-be typical misogynist that the film, for reasons unknown, simply doesn’t want to identify as such. When we finally come to understand Rowan’s motivations for wanting to destroy New York by opening up a catastrophic ghost vortex, it mainly boils down to him being a crazed misanthrope. Instead of making it obvious, the movie hints at the fact that Rowan is the type who hangs out around Men’s Rights Activist forums — he envies Kevin’s body and the attention it gets. He becomes a giant, menacing, white blob clobbering the buildings of New York with his own ghostly weapon of mass destruction.
“It’s always the sad pale ones,” Abby quips. Frankly, if you’re going to make a new Ghostbusters with a female foursome as the leads and you’re facing a backlash from clanging dungeons of the woman-hating internet, it seems like it would make for an epic opportunity to troll them, and yet, this is where Ghostbusters lacks its bite.
There are some attempts to work the gender controversy surrounding Ghostbusters into the script. Just about everyone standing in the way of the Ghostbusters, except for Cecily Strong’s character, is a man. At one point Patty is reading comments under a video the group has posted on the internet because they’re mostly positive. Picking the first one, she ends up reading aloud, “Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts!”
From the moment it was announced, the conversation around Ghostbusters has been followed by a cloud of sexism, which was obviously unfair. It was always going to be a difficult task to separate the movie from its politics, which is why it probably would have been a better choice to simply face them head on, with zero ambiguity. Instead, where Ghostbusters — a perfectly serviceable summer comedy — falters is that it’s simply too polite.