My reaction to the idea of an all-female Ghostbusters reboot? I am desperate for movies about women doing all sorts of things — including silly stuff like engaging in experimental particle physics, playing around with total protonic reversal, and saving New York City — but I would also like women to get their own stories and the opportunity to create their own iconic characters. I knew that even if this remake turned out to be completely amazing, any success would come with an asterisk. There would always been the “real” Ghostbusters — the original 80s movie, not to be confused with the spinoff animated series The Real Ghostbusters, though there’s that too — and the “girl” Ghostbusters. Women deserve better than to be constantly tagged as the lesser, the other, the not-quite-as-good.
I still believe all that. But I am getting to have my feminist cake and eat it too, because holy moly, Saturday Night Live badass Kate McKinnon (The Angry Birds Movie, Sisters) has gone and created an instantly iconic new character in gleefully reckless physicist and tinkerer Jillian Holtzmann. Little girls and grownup women alike are, I guarantee you, going to be merrily cosplaying the shit out of a gal who is simultaneously a snappy dresser, a devil-may-care snarkster, a master of the mysteries of the universe, and a creator of cool crap that goes boom. Holtzmann is clearly the analogue here for Harold Ramis’s Egon Spengler from the 1984 movie — and physically she evokes the blond-pompadoured Egon of Real Ghostbusters — but she is nothing like him. She is nothing like any female character The Movies have ever seen. She is powerful in a way that has nothing to do with her appeal to men, all too frequently the only power women onscreen are allowed to deploy. She is brainy comic mayhem that is a touch of Back to the Future’s Doc Brown and a whole lotta the Doctor (of Doctor Who, that is). She is the authority of science combined with the freedom of no-fucks-given, and she is not the sort of woman we typically see women granted the cultural permission to be. Girls and women are going to love her, and want to be her, which is what cosplay is all about: appropriating a character’s ethos.
Little girls and grown women alike are going to be merrily cosplaying the shit outta gleefully reckless physicist and tinkerer Jillian Holtzmann.
This new Ghostbusters would be worth hailing for Holtzmann alone… but happily, there is much more to cheer. The snappy script, by director Paul Feig (Spy, Bridesmaids) and Katie Dippold (The Heat), zings from the movie’s opening moments with cunning, snappy verve, often out of left field: pay close attention to the commentary offered, in the opening scene, by the tour guide of an historic NYC mansion that soon turns up haunted. (This landmark doesn’t really exist, so it lacks the power of recognition of the lion-statue-guarded public library sequence of the original movie, but that’s made up for later by some other uniquely New York motifs.) The plot follows a similar track to that of the 1984 movie, with Columbia University physics professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig: Zoolander 2, The Martian) and the more paranormally inclined academic Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: The Boss, Tammy) teaming up, along with Holtzmann and walking NYC history book Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones: Trainwreck, Top Five), to hunt down the ghosts suddenly showing up all over town. Both actors have toned down their sometimes overamped comic personas here — they’re not quite straight women to McKinnon, but they bring a real humanity to what is mostly absurd supernatural wackiness. This also makes it less easy to determine which characters from the original films Gilbert and Yates are shadows of: they’re neither and both Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stanz and Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman at the same time. As with the authentically fresh Holtzmann, they aren’t attempting to imitate anyone — nor is Leslie Jones anything at all like Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddmore — all of which does actually distinguish this movie from the spate of far more reprocessed reboots, remakes, and do-overs we’ve been subjected to of late.
Unlike with the 1984 movie — in which ghosts started appearing at precisely, by pure coincidence, the same moment when a new business came into existence to deal with them* — there is actually a reason baked into the story about why ghosts are now popping up, prompting the formation of Gilbert’s and Yates’s project, which is not an entrepreneurial effort but a scientific research endeavor to capture and study them. And baked into that reason is the feminism of this new Ghostbusters. (Sorry, boys who are afraid of girls: this is an unabashedly feminist movie. But it’s still superfun, promise!) There are a few not-really-throwaway lines of dialogue about nasty comments the women receive online, as in response to videos of ghosts they post on YouTube; these comments are nearly identical to some of those the mere idea of this movie itself has generated, and I would not be surprised to learn that they were, in fact, plucked from real Internet posts. But far more incisive is the villain of the piece, a literally basement-dwelling creep (Neil Casey) who justifies the very bad things he is doing as his way of striking back at the bullies of his childhood (and beyond). Contrast this with Gilbert’s and Yates’s tales of being shunned, made fun of, and denigrated both as kids and as adults for their oddness (and they are most definitely deliciously, dorkily odd). Guy treated badly wants to end world; gals treated badly turn their pain into something positive, and find themselves in a position to save the world.
(*I hasten to add that the 1984 flick is one of my most favorite movies ever, and this small plot convenience in no way diminishes my enjoyment of it.)
The tantrums that are going to be thrown — again — over this movie will be fun to watch. Male fans upset at seeing women center stage have already pre-freaked out over Chris Hemsworth’s (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, In the Heart of the Sea) Kevin, receptionist at the new GB HQ. He is so absurd a caricature of a “dumb blonde” — and Hemsworth is very, very funny — that he cannot be taken at face value as anything other than an over-the-top response to how women in similar roles have been treated in the past: that is, as office furniture with no purpose to serve but that of eye candy to the opposite sex both onscreen and watching from the audience. Satire: this movie is soaking in it. Some will refuse to acknowledge that.
If it’s any consolation, angry manchildren may want to consider this: this Ghostbusters may well be taking place in an alternate universe. The Times Square in which the final ghost battle occurs is chock full of signage for businesses that no longer exist in the NYC that we know (Mamma Leone’s tourist trap of a restaurant, dime store Woolworth’s, and others). Maybe this is a parallel world in which women as competent, brilliant fictional heroes is a regular thing. It’s a fantastic idea… and, alas, remains almost a total fantasy in our dimension.