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Despite Its Charm, 'Ghostbusters' Remake Comes Up Short On Laughs


This is FRESH AIR. The four comedians who star in the remake of "Ghostbusters" are Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. And yes, they are women, to the chagrin of some diehard fanboys and the delight of many others. This new "Ghostbusters" is directed by Paul Feig, who also directed the hit comedies "Bridesmaids," "The Heat," and "Spy." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Infamous internet naysayers notwithstanding, the idea of remaking the blockbuster 1984 comedy "Ghostbusters" with an all-female crew, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, was brilliant. And there were so many ways to have made it work. But the movie has no satirical ideas of its own - no ideas, period. The spooky sound you hear is dead air when the jokes don't land. To be clear, these are different characters responding to the sudden infestation of ghosts in various New York City settings. Wiig's Erin Gilbert and McCarthy's Abby Yates were once ghost hunters. But Erin became a reputable academic on the tenure track at Columbia, while Abby continued working in a basement lab at a much less prestigious college with a new partner, Holtzmann, played by McKinnon. Before long, of course, Erin is back in the fold. And the three are soon joined by Jones' Patty Tolan, a transit clerk who had her own close encounter with a poltergeist. These are funny, talented actresses. And they have a pleasant camaraderie. But thanks to a lame script by Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig, they have almost nothing to play. Wiig is nervous, blurty, trembly. And that's all. McCarthy has no distinctive riffs. Jones' Patty bullies her way into the headquarters. But as soon as a ghost pops up, she says, I'm out of here. That stereotype, the fraidycat African-American, is one I thought we'd evolved beyond. It's not conscious racism - just lazy writing. In early reviews, the attention has been on current Saturday Night Live cast member Kate McKinnon. As Holtzmann, her eyes are shocked open. Her smile is huge and frozen. And she's always playing antic tricks like Harpo Marx. I found her funnier for what she might do next than for anything she does. But she's certainly transfixing. It's Holtzmann who builds the ghost-busting weapons that send out crackly, colorful rays and balls of energy. The four women test them out in the alleyway behind their headquarters.


KATE MCKINNON: (As Jillian Holtzmann) This puppy I like to call a ghost chipper. Hollow laser technology sucks in the ghost and neutralizes it. Step up to bat and do what you're going to do.

LESLIE JONES: (As Patty Tolan) You truly scare me. I just want to let you know that.

MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Abby Yates) I'm going to just...

KRISTEN WIIG: (As Erin Gilbert) Oh, come on.

MCCARTHY: (As Abby Yates) Oh, it's like Mardi Gras in there.

MCKINNON: (As Jillian Holtzmann) It's a proton glove. It's going to maximize flexibility during hand-to-specter combat. Just give it a punch. It's motion-activated.

MCCARTHY: (As Abby Yates) OK, that was awesome. Woo. No, that is a deadly high-five.

EDELSTEIN: Scenes like that, the Ghostbusters whooping and grooving on their paramilitary power, aren't bad. And the movie's silly, inconsequential air has its charms. But I'd hoped for more. It's not that the 1984 original was a masterpiece. But it was an event. At that point, National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live vets had had plenty of hits but in rowdy, low-budget comedies with a disreputable counterculture vibe. This one had a budget many times the size of "Animal House" or "Meatballs" and state-of-the-art effects. It was a huge, mainstream, PG comedy with one subversive element, the dry irony of Bill Murray. His deadpan response to being showered in ghost goo - he slimed me - made audiences scream. That deadpan seemed momentous. This "Ghostbusters" is more like a shrug. The closest thing to a gender role reversal is casting Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, as the bimbo receptionist, a dumb blonde joke stretched out over an entire movie. Only the special effects are an improvement. In one scene, a giant, nasty demon materializes on stage at a hardcore rock concert and actually improves the number. And the final orgy of ectoplasm in Times Square, a kind of Macy's parade from hell, is downright gorgeous. The problem is the other ghosts, meaning the actors from the original dragged in for cameos. The most painful to watch is Murray. He plays a skeptic who doesn't believe in ghosts, which might have worked if he'd had some jazzy patter. But Murray just looks tired and uncomfortable. He's this "Ghostbusters'" accidental emblem, a great, old clown dispirited.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, Michael K. Williams - he played a bootlegger in "Boardwalk Empire." And he's now in two new series, "The Night Of" and "Black Market." But he had difficulties with his first success as Omar in "The Wire."


MICHAEL K WILLIAMS: I definitely wore that dark energy that Omar was. He was a dark soul - tortured soul. And I just woke all of that up and lived in that.

BIANCULLI: Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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