One of the funniest things about Paul Feig’s all-female remake of the 1984 Ivan Reitman comedy Ghostbusters is the gulf between the acrid reception the new film has received in some quarters—mainly the airless lairs of hardcore fanboys of the original, irked that a classic of their childhood has been slimed by the presence of women—and the unassuming, fizzy lightness of the movie itself. This new Ghostbusters couldn’t be less interested in advancing an ideological agenda or subverting the previous incarnation (to which, indeed, Feig pays loving tribute, with cameos from all the original’s surviving leads and a prominently placed bronze bust of the late Harold Ramis, who died in 2014). The only agenda Feig, his co-screenwriter Katie Dippold, and his four female leads have is to provoke a steady stream of giggles, punctuated by the occasional scream. In the words of the classic Ray Parker Jr. theme song (here delivered in a just-OK cover version by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott), busting makes them feel good, and us along with them.
Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, a Columbia physics professor on the verge of tenure who’s mortified when a book she co-wrote long ago on the existence of paranormal phenomena shows up for sale online. Suspecting the book’s sudden reappearance has to do with her co-author and estranged friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin seeks Abby out in the tricked-out mad-science lab her old pal now shares with a new partner, an eccentric tech whiz named Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Abby agrees to take the remaining copies of their book off the market on the condition that Erin accompany them to a historic New York mansion that’s reputed to be haunted. Their visit provides the first big ghostly set piece, in which the spirit of a turn-of-the-century murderess returns to hover menacingly above them, then vanishes, but not before drenching the prim Erin in a torrent of ectoplasmic green slime.
In their initial glee on finding their paranormal theories vindicated, the three women exit the mansion squealing “Ghosts are REAL!” Naturally, the homemade video of their reaction finds its way onto YouTube, and like her predecessors in the first Ghostbusters, Erin is kicked out of her swank Columbia professorship and forced to hang out a shingle as a freelance ‘buster. She, Abby, and Jillian set up a business together, based not in a dilapidated firehouse this time but above a dumpy Chinese takeout joint (it skimps on the wontons in Abby’s wonton soup). Despite the scorn of a professional debunker played, in a disappointingly wisecrack-free cameo, by Bill Murray, the women remain convinced that all signs point toward an unprecedented convergence of supernatural beings on New York City. This suspicion is confirmed when an MTA worker named Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) shows up with the story of a glowing blue wraith that’s been chasing her through subway tunnels. Patty also happens to be a student of New York history whose knowledge of the city’s past proves a key asset, and before long she’s joined the crew as the fourth ‘buster, even providing them with a vehicle—her uncle’s hearse, soon to be tricked out in familiar ghoul-chasing style.
When the fearsome foursome show up for the first time in full battle gear—striped jumpsuits, proton blasters, and all—there’s a thrill in seeing an action-movie team made up not only of women, but of women who fall blissfully outside the narrow definition of the Hollywood hottie. As director Feig has pointed out, three of the four leads are in their 40s. Two, McCarthy and Jones, are big women whose body types are seldom seen on-screen at all, much less in action-hero roles. Another, Wiig, is an offbeat, scrawny type whose unglamorous nature is played up here by her extra-mousy costumes. Even McKinnon—at 32, the potential blond bombshell among the four—so completely inhabits her getup of yellow-tinted lab goggles, paint-stained coveralls, and Einsteinian tufts of hair that you never get the sense she’s being positioned as “the pretty one.” (The stereotype is punctured also by the fact that McKinnon, and possibly her character, are gay.)
The setup drags a bit on its way to a pair of big final action sequences, during which the evil machinations of a power-hungry nerd (Neil Casey) cause all manner of undead spirits, including an eerie parade-balloon version of the famed Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, to be released upon the city. But as with the original, the laughs come in the small character moments: McKinnon’s Jillian releasing unhinged cackles of pleasure as she tests the destructive power of her latest proton-blasting device, or the hapless longing with which Wiig’s socially awkward Erin pines after the ‘busters’ dense but hunky office secretary (The Avengers’ Chris Hemsworth, deploying his comic chops with as much deftness as Thor ever wielded his mighty hammer).
Storywise, this new Ghostbusters matches the first one nearly beat for beat, minus a romantic subplot and plus a significantly increased special-effects budget. But the real reason to see it—as was the case with the original, and with the past two Feig/McCarthy collaborations, Bridesmaids and Spy—has to do with the universally excellent cast who establish an easy tone of camaraderie and loopy banter. These women are having fun just being together and getting to don matching jumpsuits and whale on undead spirits, and their evident joy makes us happy to hop in the hearse for a ride-along. Midway through the movie, checking the comments on one of their YouTube postings (always a mistake), one of the ‘busters reads aloud to the others: “Ain’t no bitches gonna bust no ghosts.” Ghostbusters refutes that sexist sentiment not by hopping on a feminist soapbox to fulminate against the haters, but by strapping on a proton pack and taking care of business.