Critic's Notebook: Why 'Ghostbusters' Is a Missed Opportunity for Feminism

Courtesy of Sony; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Sony Classics
From left: 'Ghostbusters'; 'Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates'; 'Equity'

Paul Feig's all-female reboot is a much more timid, less empowering example of big-screen gender reversal than the recent 'Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates' or the upcoming financial thriller 'Equity.'

Sweet, stupid and objectified, Kevin is the adorably brainless hunk hired by the new all-female Ghostbusters crew as their receptionist. Hilariously played by Chris Hemsworth, he tries to answer a phone while it’s sitting in a fish tank, removes the lenses from his glasses so he can rub his eyes better, and — sad to say — is the funniest part of Paul Feig's disappointingly timid reboot.

Kevin is a savagely funny send-up, revenge for generations of sexy but incompetent onscreen secretaries played by women. But the gender reversal at the center of the film is less satisfying: While Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon fit comfortably in their Ghostbuster roles, there’s no edge to their characters. Flipping genders with scarcely a nod to the fact that the once-male heroes are now women may be equality of a sort, but it’s also a missed opportunity. If you have a female gaze, why not use it?

Switching genders effectively is trickier than it sounds. This summer's current comedy Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and the upcoming Wall Street drama Equity both carry it off better than Ghostbusters. Along with a number of gender-reversing works from the last year, these movies hint at the pitfalls of doing what Helen Mirren suggested recently in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable: “Just change the name” and cast a woman in a part that's been written for a man. That strategy worked perfectly for Eye in the Sky, in which Mirren plays a tough military commander. But Eye is a plot-driven suspense movie about drones. Films that are more character-based have to work harder. The trick is to acknowledge what is specific about female characters without falling into stereotypes.

Compare Ghostbusters to Bridesmaids (both directed by Feig, usually so reliable at comedies with women) and you instantly see the difference. Many people remember Bridesmaids as a comedy in which girls get to be just as gross as guys because of the indelible pooping-in-public scene. But that episode is not representative of the film. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumalo’s screenplay is truly about female friendship, from the way the characters talk to each other about men and self-respect to the maid of honor’s jealousy of the bride’s new BFF. Depictions of women’s ties and rivalries have rarely been as fresh, honest and funny.

Ghostbusters merely tosses in a few lines about gender. A villain sneers, “You shoot like girls.” Looking at online comments about their ghostbusting business, McCarthy’s character reads, “Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts,” directly addressing the real-life internet backlash against the casting. The movie was never going to be what those ugly, fanboy comments suggested: too female. No one could have guessed it would have the opposite problem: Ghostbusters isn’t female enough.

Think of what the film might have been if the characters’ social roles had been more sharply defined. Wiig’s character, a Columbia University professor, has a single throwaway line about her demure skirt suit being too sexy for academe. A smarter script might have lambasted the sexism behind that standard. The girlhood friendship and later estrangement between Wiig and McCarthy’s characters might have been given some substance instead of bland expository dialogue. And instead of a mayor’s aide (Cecily Strong) dismissing the ghostbusters as “sad and lonely women” who “read Eat, Pray Love and just ran with it” (which makes no sense to anyone who has read that goopy memoir), maybe she could have slung an insult that hurt.

The surprisingly funny Mike and Dave is built on the kind of pointed gender reversal that Ghostbusters avoids. Two idiotic brothers (Zac Efron and Adam Devine) advertise for “good girls” to take to a family wedding. They find a pair of hard-partying women, Tatiana and Alice (Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick), who masquerade as prim little ladies — at least until they are unleashed at the wedding in Hawaii and turn out to be even more sexual, selfish and disruptive than their dates. Mike and Dave are the ones clutching their pearls here, while the women are the wedding crashers (the film even name-checks that movie).

Part of the clever joke in Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s knowing screenplay is that Tatiana and Alice are not model feminists. “It’s 2016 and women can do shit now,” Tatiana slurs drunkenly right before she and Alice are fired from their waitress jobs, at a Hooters-like place no less. Playing that card doesn’t work on her boss, who says, “Did you just push your tits up and say 'feminism'?” Wait around for the credits, and there’s a bonus scene in a barn between Tatiana and Mike that shows how much these women are in charge of their own sexuality. Sure, the film is stupid-funny and sometimes crass. But the gender-specific comedy offers a lively twist on boys-on-the-loose movies, going all the way back to Animal House.

On TV, the recent AMC series The Night Manager pulled off a great switch. An MI5 agent, named Leonard Burr in John LeCarre’s novel, became Angela Burr, played by Olivia Coleman. Because Coleman was pregnant when she was filming, that was written into the character. But Burr is no stereotypical, soft-hearted maternal presence. She is a tough, manipulative, complex professional. When she displays compassion, it comes from the depth of her character, not from her baby bump.

Equity (in theaters July 29) achieves that kind of smart balance: gender-specific but not simple-minded about it. Anna Gunn plays Naomi, an investment banker who desperately needs a big deal to go through. She and the other lead characters are definitely women in a man’s world. A younger colleague tries to hide her pregnancy as long as possible. When Naomi’s boss tells her, “You rub people the wrong way,” the film doesn’t have to spell out the sexism; a man wouldn’t have to be so pliant and likable with clients.

But the film works as a financial thriller because it is fundamentally about Wall Street ruthlessness and ambition. The plot turns on backbiting in the financial world, and the person who betrays Naomi could just as easily be a woman as a man.

For every effective gender-reversal movie, there are still plenty of wrong-headed ones. Take disappointing frat-girl movies like Sisters or Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which pay lip service to the idea that the heroines are different from men, but mostly just impose male cliches on female characters. The siblings played by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters talk a lot about motherhood. The sorority girls who disrupt the family life of Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne in Neighbors 2 babble a little about female friendship. But both movies are essentially about the idea that women can party as hard and as nastily as men. The jokes are tired on arrival.

In another example, last fall’s Our Brand Is Crisis, Sandra Bullock plays a campaign manager. The role was once meant for George Clooney, based on a documentary about James Carville managing a Bolivian presidential campaign. With that emphasis on political process, the role reversal might have worked fine the way Eye in the Sky did, by changing the name. Instead, Bullock’s character is an emotional wreck, an insecure bumbler. Would Clooney or any actor in the role ever have been so fragile?

Bullock and McCarthy had more luck in the buddy-cop movie The Heat (2013), also directed by Feig, which works by plugging them into an odd-couple Lethal Weapon formula, and taking advantage of the actors’ comedic strengths. McCarthy is a live-wire mess, Bullock uptight. The screenplay is by Katie Dippold, who co-wrote Ghostbusters with Feig, and you can see how they might have thought an easy gender-flip might work again. But The Heat didn’t have the baggage of Ghostbusters, whose casting promised a daring female reboot. Its heart is in the right non-sexist place. But how much better the film might have been if it had acknowledged that women can bust ghosts and carry a big, pricey comedy without wearing men’s hand-me-downs.

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