'Ghostbusters': Film Review

A bust.

Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones ain't afraid of no ghost in this female reboot of the 1984 supernatural comedy franchise.

When the fledgling team of paranormal investigators in Paul Feig's Ghostbusters reboot post details of their first supernatural encounter online, one of the comments it elicits is: "Ain't no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts." It's a clever wink at the kneejerk hostility engendered among self-appointed guardians of the beloved '80s comedy franchise, long before the new movie was publicly screened. The unfunny mess that hits theaters Friday, like a big goopy splat of ectoplasm, will no doubt make those naysayers feel vindicated. But the fact is that an estrogen-infused makeover, particularly one with such a comedically gifted cast, was a promising idea. Sadly, that's where the inventiveness ended.

The high curiosity factor, the stars' popularity and moviegoers' deep affection for the property should generate decent opening numbers for Sony. But despite the teasing hint of a sequel in a post-end-credits coda mention of Zuul, the malevolent demon who possessed Sigourney Weaver in Ivan Reitman's 1984 original, the afterlife this time around looks evanescent.

The trajectory from the character-driven laughs and raucous physicality of Bridesmaids through the odd-couple antics of The Heat to the well-oiled action-comedy heroics of Spy in theory makes director Feig an ideal fit — particularly since all three of those films were elevated by their warmly knotty depiction of female friendship.

However, although the new Ghostbusters follows the template of the original by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, the witless script by Feig and his co-writer on The Heat, Katie Dippold, has no juice. Short on both humor and tension, the spook encounters are rote collisions with vaporous CG specters that escalate into an uninvolving supernatural cataclysm unleashed upon New York's Times Square. It's all busy-ness, noise and chaos, with zero thrills and very little sustainable comic buoyancy.

There's some knowing amusement in a rep from the Mayor's office (Saturday Night Live regular Cecily Strong) keeping a lid on public hysteria by using the ghostbusters' gender to discredit them as "incredibly sad, lonely women." But those expecting a clever feminist spin or any other sharp 21st century twists will be disappointed, and the upgrade to new-generation VFX yields nothing remarkable.

What's most surprising is the curious shortage of chemistry among the four leads, who never quite appear comfortable as a unit despite their overlapping screen histories. Kate McKinnon fares best of them, injecting consistent freshness into her off-kilter line readings and screwy reactions as eccentric engineer Jillian Holtzmann, who builds the team's anti-ghost gadgets — from familiar proton blasters to new improved gizmos. And Leslie Jones, despite being stuck playing a streetwise stereotype, has choice moments as Patty Tolan, a transit worker who brings her vast knowledge of New York and her funeral-director uncle's hearse to the job. (Yes, it gets ECTO-1 license plates.)

But there's a hole in the movie where its anchoring central friendship should be — between Melissa McCarthy's Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig's Erin Gilbert, a bond that dates back to high school and is gradually rekindled after an extended chill. While the actors worked together effectively in Bridesmaids, there's minimal evidence of a connection in their scenes here, which are often flat and sagging under the weight of dead air. Concept suffocates comedy at almost every step.

All the supernatural mayhem of the first movie — and to a lesser extent its 1989 sequel — was supported by the terrific rapport among four distinctly drawn main characters. Bill Murray's deadpan drollery, Aykroyd's earnest enthusiasm, Ramis' geeky awkwardness and Ernie Hudson's relaxed everyman vibe intersected in appealing ways that made it a hoot to watch how the team approached each fresh menace.

Those predecessors go unmentioned here, but one of the reboot's biggest problems is that its four leads seem more like female variations on the original models than fully formed characters in their own right. This is especially limiting for McCarthy and Wiig. McCarthy puts her signature, aggressively irreverent spin on impassioned science nerd Abby, and she scores a few laughs — this is not one of her abrasive misfires like Identity Thief or Tammy. But you feel the strain. Wiig's Erin is introduced as a stiff academic who has distanced herself from her early paranormal dabbling; naturally her starchy suit makes her the first to get slimed. Then zany Erin starts to peek through but somehow never gains much traction.

The failure to reinvent the leads to any satisfying degree is arguably preferable, however, to the overhaul of the supporting players. While the original movies had Annie Potts' deliciously unflappable Janine Melnitz, this time around, the ghostbusters hire a hunky dolt named Kevin as their assistant, played by Chris Hemsworth in an ingratiating but wooden performance that sucks the comic energy out of his every scene. (It further undermines Erin's credibility that she gets all goo-goo-eyed and silly around him.)

As revealed in Sony's second trailer, Kevin also inherits some of the plot functions of Rick Moranis' character, Louis Tully, and Weaver's Dana Barrett in the original, though that possession thread never really catches fire. An elaborate production number conducted by Kevin, which owes a debt to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, looks like it might have been fun but survives only in glimpses spliced into the end credits.

There's also a villain of sorts, a bullied outsider named Rowan (Neil Casey) who is harnessing the power of dead spirits in a sinister plan to exact revenge on humanity. As an adversary, he's ineffectual, and his pressure-cooked apocalypse is merely assaultive sound and fury. It doesn't help that in place of iconic Manhattan monuments and buildings, we get fictional locations or generic studio facsimiles of the real thing, mixing vintage signage with prominently placed corporate brands.

Moranis is the sole surviving principal from the original Ghostbusters who doesn't turn up in a cameo, the best of them saved for the credits. Also reappearing is the blobby, hot dog-gorging Slimer, who gets a lady friend in the Mrs. Potato Head vein; and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who appears incongruously alongside some kind of steampunk ghoul version of the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Those and other nostalgic nods to the progenitor only serve as a reminder of the charm that's lacking here, sacrificed to bland, effects-laden bloat and uninspired writing, making this a missed opportunity.

Distributor: Sony
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Matt Walsh, Neil Casey, Cecily Strong, Karan Soni, Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McDonald
Director: Paul Feig
Screenwriters: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig, based on the 1984 film directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
Producers: Ivan Reitman, Amy Pascal
Executive producers: Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, Dan Aykroyd, Tom Pollock, Joe Medjuck, Ali Bell, Michele Imperato Stabile
Director of photography: Robert Yeoman
Production designer: Jefferson Sage
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Editors: Brett White, Melissa Bretherton
Visual effects supervisor: Peter G. Travers
Special visual effects: Imageworks
Casting: Allison Jones

Rated PG-13, 116 minutes