‘Ghostbusters’ Feminized Shouldn’t Be Demonized: Good but not Great

Coming from a background in theater criticism, I’ve been baffled by the animosity toward the gender-switch in the classic 1984 comedy, “Ghostbusters.”  Don’t discount this new version version of “Ghostbusters” with a female team, but also don’t forget that the original wasn’t perfect.

In the theater, some playwrights revise their popular plays, expressly to include women. In 1985, a decade after the ABC sitcom with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (1970-1975) had ended, Neil Simon revised his classic 1965 play “The Odd Couple,” to feature a pair of female roommates. Instead of the neat-freak Felix Unger and the slovenly Oscar Madison, the play featured Florence Ungar and Olive Madison. It opened on Broadway in June of 1985.

Reginald Rose also wrote adaptations of his 1957 “Twelve Angry Men”  to include women “Twelve Angry Jurors” or be all women “Twelve Angry Women.”

The all-female version “Ghostbusters” has shown an ugly side of moviegoers getting bad reviews before it even opened. This version of the movie isn’t perfect; “Ghostbusters” 2016 has a different plot, lots of updated cultural references and delightful cameo appearances.

The afternoon before I saw it, my friend, Kevin B. Lee, posted a video essay of the 1984 original, reminding us that the first “Ghostbusters” wasn’t perfect either. It was sexist and, at times, in a creepy way. What woman didn’t get that icky feeling when the demon arms spring out of nowhere and grope Sigourney Weaver, with the third arm coming up between her legs. For women, that was a tonal shift that didn’t seem to fit with the otherwise glib feeling. A year later, Weaver return as a female action hero: Ellen Ripley in the 1986 sequel “Aliens” to the 1979 “Alien.”

The movie begins with a faux haunting turning frighteningly real for the tour guide (Zach Woods). After a smug smile to himself, he is confronted by the ghost of an insane woman who was locked away in the cellar after murdering all the servants in the house.

The 2016 version of the movie has the added angst of a female scientist, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), on the brink of tenure at Columbia University. Yet a literary ghost from her past comes to haunt her. During her younger days, she wrote a book, “Ghosts from our Past,” with her then-best friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Since that book’s publication, she has gone straight-laced and conservative in her quest for tenure in an ultra conservative department.  Yates has also earned a PhD, but is teaching at a less established college.

An man, Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley Jr.), holding a copy of the book, turns up at Columbia, searching for Gilbert. He has a troubling haunting at a famous house. Gilbert thought the book was out-of-print, but discovers that Yates has republished and is distributing it via Amazon. Together with her electrical engineer, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), she has continued to work on paranormal research. Promising Gilbert that the book will be buried into obscurity, Yates convinces her to introduce them to Mulgrave. What they see at the infamous house results in Gilbert being denied tenure and Yates and Holtzmann being thrown out of their college.

This threesome decide to form the Department of Metaphysical Examination” over a Chinese restaurant after they see the perfect place (a retired fire department that they can’t afford). This works with the running gag about Yates complaining about bad Chinese soup and gives the threesome cool digs. They do hire a receptionist, Kevin Beckman (Chris Hemsworth), and Gilbert can barely contain her gawking infatuation. Beckman can barely answer the phone.

An MTA workers Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) is their next client when she witnesses the ghost of an electric chair executed prisoner. The group tests out their equipment but realize they need more power and Patty joins the team bringing her no-nonsense attitude and an intense knowledge of the city.

What the women don’t know is that the sudden increase in ghost sightings are caused by one of the fans of the book. Using the book, a creepy janitor, Rowan North (Neil Casey), has been building devices that serve as portals between the ghostly world and ours. He’s planning a ghostly apocalypse. When he targets a heavy metal concert, the team, now dubbed Ghostbusters, are called in and capture a demon in front of a large audience.

News reports result in a famous paranormal debunker, Dr. Martin Heiss (Bill Murray) visiting their office and demanding proof. He gets his proof, but it isn’t pretty. The Ghostbusters are summoned by the mayor (Andy Garcia) who has been keeping the growing ghost problem secret to avoid widespread panic. That secret soon breaks out and the Ghostbusters will be called in to save New York City.

Katie Dippold (“Parks and Recreation” and “The Heat”) and Paul Feig’s script could be tightened up, but a lot of the meandering serves to bring us various cameos (spoiler alert): Dan Aykroyd as a cabbie, Sigourney Weaver as Rebecca Gorin, Ernie Hudson as Uncle Bill Jenkins, Annie Potts as a hotel desk clerk, Ozzy Osbourne as himself, Al Roker as himself and Pat Kiernan as himself and Slimer (who gets a girlfriend of sorts). The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man makes an appearance, but (spoiler alert) it is the Ghostbusters’ logo (introduced by a tagger in the subways) that becomes the final giant beast.

McKinnon is hilarious as the eccentric Holtzmann when she’s working while grooving to a tune, explaining in pseudo-scientific terms the upgrading technology or going after those ghosts. McCarthy’s Yates is the angry woman to Wiig’s Gilbert who is a more cautious egghead, but Gilbert finds her inner super hero by the end of the movie. Jones’ Tolan helps with the practical aspects, reining in the scientists. Her acquisition of their wheels and its loss through the portal set up one of the most welcome cameos. Unlike the 1984 version, this “Ghostbusters” develops all the characters and has a diverse set of characters.  Surrounded by talented comedians, Hemsworth shows he has a talent for comedy that hasn’t been utilized in his Marvel-verse outings.

Zuul doesn’t appear, but wait until the end of the credits. The credits themselves are a dancing delight featuring Hemsworth busting a few moves and being answered by the squadron of emergency responders.

“Ghostbusters” isn’t perfect, but it sets up the possibility of a better sequel as well as revealing the stubborn male chauvinism and misogyny that continues to haunt our society. (Review of the original “Ghostbusters“).

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