Ain’t Afraid of No Sexists: “Ghostbusters” reboot could be sharper but still a good time

Ghostbusters (2016)
116 min., rated PG-13.

Already-angry fans of the beloved 1984 supernatural comedy “Ghostbusters” can calm down and swallow their preconceived notions; no one’s childhood has been ruined. Sure, reworking an actual classic is a nervy, precarious proposition, but watching the execution is paramount. Responsible for three consistently strong comedies in the last five years, writer-director Paul Feig (2015’s “Spy”) teams back up with screenwriter Katie Dippold (2013’s “The Heat”) to throw a fresh coat of slime on a revered property. Instead of inviting fans of the original to compare, the new, gender-flipped “Ghostbusters” stands on its own and deserves a fair shake, even as one roots for it to get funnier than it really does. It may be more energetic and likable than hilarious, but the makers and cast of this reboot never forget to show their audience a good time.

On the verge of academic tenure at Columbia University, buttoned-up physics professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is mortified when a book about the paranormal she co-authored surfaces for sale online. In hopes of getting it taken down, she reunites with former partner and estranged friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who published the book and continues to study her paranormal research at a college with oddball engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Once Erin gets a call about an apparition sighting in a New York tourist mansion, the three witness it for themselves and Erin becomes a believer again. They’re soon joined by MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), who encounters a ghost in the subway tunnel and believes her knowledge of the city would be valuable. Unable to afford an old firehouse, these smart, brave ladies decide to open up their services above a Chinese restaurant. When a fed-up nerd named Rowan North (Neil Casey) wants to get back at the world for wronging him, he devises an apocalyptic plan that will force the newly named Ghostbusters into action and bust their city's invasion of ghosts.

“Ghostbusters” finds a way of holding respect and affection for the Ivan Reitman original but forging its own path as a brand-new entry. As a tour guide (Zach Woods) spins his yarn about what makes the Adridge Mansion an old haunt, literally, before becoming subjected to the specter in the basement, the right tone of spooky fun is set. As writer-director Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold make their way to acquainting the viewer with our new Ghostbusters, there is an actual history drawn between Erin and Abby and a reason why these friends have come to believe in the supernatural. It might not have hurt if these women had been written with lives that existed outside of their profession, but then again, their profession is their life and they don’t have time to waste when proving to the world that ghosts do exist. Credit is due, though, for not thanklessly saddling any of the Ghostbusters with an actual love interest, even if Erin can barely function when around the girls' hot new receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth).

Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones aren’t merely female counterparts to Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson. No, they have their own parts to play, and watching this group of brilliantly funny women work together in matching jumpsuits and proton packs is an infectious treat. Wiig and McCarthy aren’t cutting loose here in the "straight (wo)man" roles—some will probably be pleased to learn that the latter’s Abby is the least ribald of any character the actress has ever played in a lead role—but even though their characters are grounded the most in reality, they still provide quick-witted moments with their can’t-miss comic timing. Playing gizmo technician Jillian Holtzmann on a wackier, more absurd plane with a lovably weird grin, McKinnon is exuberantly funny and a colorful live-wire if there ever was one. Even when McKinnon doesn’t get a joke in a four shot, it’s telling who the MVP is when one still can’t take his or her eyes off of her. Her delivery is so distinct and enthusiastic that her third-act line about the year being 2040 is spit-out-your-soda funny. Jones lets it rip, too, with her fierce, brassy personality as Patty never coming off strictly as the token black Ghostbuster. The film also has a secret (or maybe not-so-secret) weapon in Chris Hemsworth. As an extension of his surprising comedy chops in 2015’s “Vacation” reboot, the actor finds hilarious and endearing inspiration in playing dumb and hunky as the Ghostbusters’ receptionist Kevin, who’s decidedly hired more for his looks than his nonexistent smarts or skills.

Brightened by the effortless chemistry and dynamic between all four of its central performers, “Ghostbusters” is as cheerfully entertaining as it is disappointingly safe. Given the pedigree, one can’t help but feel that the script could have stood a joke sharpener. The pacing is at least zippy and the finished cut tightly scripted, concentrating more on Erin, Abby, Jillian and Patty and not droning on with the human villain’s master plan or the disbelieving mayor (Andy Garcia), but when a joke falls flat, it has the whiff of the “is-that-the-best-you-got?” variety. On the side of what actually lands, the repartee is generally solid; a self-aware nudge at Internet trolls is pointed without being cruel; there are cleverly integrated nods to "Jaws" and "The Wizard of Oz"; and a running joke with Abby’s delivery food driver (Karan Soni) skimping on her wonton soup gets better each time. As far as director Feig’s handling of the horror elements and action goes, the use of a ghostly mannequin is ingenious and the Times Square climax is a big, lively crowd-pleaser with fun use of the Macy’s Day Parade balloons. With the VFX of the spirits slick and nifty as one could hope, this is decidedly Feig’s brightest and most visually eye-popping film.

Even if the 2016 “Ghostbusters” may not be a frequently laugh-out-loud gas, it is impossible not to smile throughout and have one’s spirits raised. Callbacks are welcome, such as the ambulance Ecto-1, Slimer (who gets a girlfriend) and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, but only a few of the obligatory cameos by the original “Ghostbusters” cast actually work without coming across as distracting fan service (for instance, a subtle salute to Harold Ramis is lovely). Musical orchestrations of Ray Parker Jr.’s original theme are appeased and updated with a funky spin by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott. There isn’t an ounce of cynicism here, just joy. Calling these ladies back wouldn’t be such a bad thing.