There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of remaking 1980’s smash-hit high-tech scary comedy with a female cast, but doing so successfully would require a good deal more imagination and charm than director Paul Feig and his co-writer Katie Dippold bring to this bloated, remarkably unfunny retread, in which some of today’s most talented comic actresses are stuck trying to sell tepid material for nearly two hours. When even cameos by stars of the original “Ghostbusters”—Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver—fall flat, you know the movie is in deep trouble.
Things actually begin fairly promisingly with Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a physics professor at Columbia, wigging out, if you’ll permit the pun, over her upcoming tenure review; the chair (Charles Dance) is a martinet who dismisses even a reference letter from Princeton as being not quite sufficient. But Gilbert’s chances are really put in danger when an anxious fellow (Ed Begley, Jr.) approaches her to investigate spectral phenomena at an old private home turned into a museum (a place introduced to visitors with some choice quips by a tour guide played by Zach Woods). He does so bearing a copy of a book on paranormal activity she co-authored years ago with her childhood pal Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) but has since tried to suppress as a youthful indiscretion. She’s horrified to discover it’s now for sale on Amazon.
Gilbert quickly looks up Yates, from whom she’s been estranged for a long while. Abby has continued her ghost-chasing from a spot in the basement of a school of low repute, where she works with Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), an engineer as well as an obsessed spirit-hunter herself. When Gilbert tells her about the supposedly haunted old mansion, Abby promises to remove the book from the marketplace if Erin will gain them entrance to it. Their visit unleashes a family ghost from the place’s basement, and when Gilbert’s excited reaction hits social media, her professorship is over and she joins Yates and Holtzmann in their quest. The trio quickly becomes a femme foursome when they’re approached by NYC transit worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), who’s encountered a malevolent apparition in a subway tunnel and invites them to investigate it. The team gets a fifth quasi-member when they hire handsome but dumb-as-rock Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as the receptionist in the office they establish above a Chinese restaurant.
From this point the movie devolves into a back-and-forth juxtaposition of scenes of the ghostbusters bickering and extravagant special-effects sequences in which they take on spirits being unleashed by a psycho janitor named Rowan (Neil Casey), who’s building up to opening a vortex that will unleash armies of nasty ghosts into the world. (One of the battles occurs at the rock concert.) There’s also a sub-plot about how the NYC mayor (Andy Garcia) and his officious aide (Cecily Strong) attempt to brand the busters as frauds in order to tamp down public panic, and a turn in the last hour toward demonic possession, first of Abby and then of Kevin; but these elements offer few laughs and simply weigh the picture down even more.
Needless to say, everything culminates in a huge special-effects battle in the streets of the Big Apple, involving huge malevolent parade balloons among other apparitions, that consumes nearly a full half-hour, though it seems to go on much longer; it’s reminiscent of the similar set-pieces that closed both “Pixels” and “R.I.P.D.”—and you can understand how desperate and dire the result is when it invites comparisons to those massive duds. There’s also a bit in which the possessed Kevin turns all the police and soldiers amassed against him into a “Thriller”-like dance formation that seems to presage a gigantic dance sequence, but it never happens, suggesting that the filmmakers decided not to pile on a mistake they’ve already made by overusing the familiar music from the first film (Theodore Shapiro’s score is overall no prize). Instead they just add more cheesy effects before intercutting some predictably stale gags into the final credits to end the picture with the suggestion that a sequel might be forthcoming.
Throughout the movie the four leads gamely give their all, but it’s to no avail. McCarthy has worked well with Feig in the past—“Spy” was genuinely funny—but here’s she’s just one-note shrill, and whatever chemistry the director engendered between her and Wiig in “Bridesmaids” is lacking here, especially since Wiig plays Erin like a goofy fifties schoolgirl, drooling over Hemsworth’s hunky Kevin in a way that destroys even the slightest hint of feminism at work. McKinnon tries to emulate the eccentricity Murray brought to the first film as the gadget-crazed Holtzmann but comes off mostly irritating, while Jones is trapped in the stereotype of the brazen African-American woman with ’tude, to which the shopworn thirties cliché of the black who responds with bug-eyed fear to any unexpected occurrence is added. Hemsworth flails about trying to pull off Kevin’s klutzy shtick, and isn’t much better when the character’s possession turns the character into a powerful, supremely confident ghostmaster. He seems ill-at-ease in either pose.
The rest of the cast doesn’t matter much, except for the cameos by the stars of the original that are noteworthy only by reason of the audience recognition they cultivate rather than any laughs they generate; this is essentially an effects extravaganza, and apart from the first couple ghost appearances, when Feig actually opts to scare us at an amusement-park level (the 3D adding to the impact), the visual explosion isn’t especially effective. That’s particularly the case in the big final confrontation, when there’s obviously an effort to fashion some pleasantly strange images (as well as reintroducing some old friends) among the ghosts, but it all comes off feeling tired and familiar. What was surprising and fresh in 1984 has become ho-hum and musty in the intervening thirty-two years, and the gender change isn’t handled cleverly enough to revive it.
It might be noted in passing that even the chronology of the signage in the culminating battle is a mess, making you wonder if this is supposed to be a period piece. Theatre marquees advertising both “Fists of Fury” and “Willard” suggest things are happening in 1971, but there’s also an advertisement for “Taxi Driver,” which was released five years later. And yet there are officials representing the Department of Homeland Security on hand to cause the heroines trouble. Maybe the intent is to suggest that “Ghostbusters” is happening in some sort of timeless neverland, but like so much else in this misguided reboot, it merely adds to the conclusion that the movie should never have happened at all.