Friday, November 19, 2021


How peculiar that a decades-later return to the world of a pretty flimsy comedy is now puffed up with artificial reverence. The goofy special effects comedy Ghostbusters went from being a hit lark in the summer of 1984 to a kind of revered generational classic among a slim cohort. To hear some fans discuss it, you’d think it was a movie of profound emotional development and loaded with lore. They take it very seriously, so they start thinking the movie itself did, too. But rewatch it now and you might see it is a shaggy, silly thing, always more about a fun theme song, some amusing personalities (Bill Murray chief among them), and a sarcastic tone than something spinning its mythology. Thus, after an ill-fated 2016 remake whose women-led cast somehow led to vicious alt-right backlash, the idea of the series as serious business and a generational bequeathment has found a willing vessel: writer-director Jason Reitman, son of the original’s helmer, Ivan. The result is Ghostbusters: Afterlife, an improbably enjoyable movie some of the time, although it runs out of invention and goodwill just short of its finale. That’s because it is better the more it’s just the original reconfigured as a small-town tween adventure family drama, a refreshingly small-scale effort of Amblinesque coming of age sentimentality with a dusting of low-key sci-fi awe—Spielberg’s suburbs and Netflix's Stranger Things in a blender. An ouroboros of franchise filmmaking, the thing is, even at its best, never more than inspiration and rip-off endlessly eating each other. But that is a little fun with surface shine and appealing leads.

This belated sequel trades sarcastic 80’s New Yorkers for a couple of kids relocated to nowhere Oklahoma. A nerdy girl (Mckenna Grace) and her gangly older brother (Finn Wolfhard) are moved by their mother (Carrie Coon) into the creaky farmhouse of their estranged and freshly deceased kook grandfather. Guess what? He was a ghostbuster. And he was prepping the house with gear to stop a new infestation that’s apocalyptically brewing in the nearby abandoned mine. The kids are easy to sympathize with, misfits and outsiders finding some reason to hope for belonging. They’re quickly surrounded with a few more cute young people and one genially amusing science teacher (Paul Rudd). There are lots of cozy shots of the tiny main street and sunny farmlands, with some nostalgia for a crumbling storefront, drive-in-roller-skates Americana. From there, the touches of supernatural stakes—some ghostly hide-and-seek and messages from beyond, and some early splashes of effects-driven scurrying—plays out with a fine slow build and light touch. The screenplay was co-written by Gil Kenan, whose Monster House was a better version of the kid-friendly spooky movie. The moderate enjoyment I got out of this new Ghostbusters’ early going was in its earthier look and genuine interest in its stock types. The pace and tone ends up grooving on a vintage vibe—though it’s set in modern day, there’s a sense it’s playing in tribute to the sorts of blockbusters en vogue forty to fifty years ago.

The trouble really only comes when it decides to be a pure nostalgia play instead. The movie gives over what derivative originality it had to call backs and cameos. The final act of the picture finds a bunch of stuff happening, and tons of creatures and designs appearing, for no reason other than that every bit of that references the original. There’s even a ghoulish digital resurrection that’s so dripping in unearned saccharine notes that it feels all the cheaper. What started as a take on the material that plays perfectly without knowledge of the first couple Ghostbusters, becomes something leaping over gaps that really only get filled in with the logic of a myth-tending sequel. Why did they become that? Why did they go there? How’d they show up? All that’s answered with a shrug and a wink and a rush to make the long-time fans feel flattered. It’s not a million miles away from what Star Wars or Rocky or Star Trek or Halloween (or name your franchise) does from time to time, but this one feels acutely unearned because it is building its ill-fitting puffed up monument to itself on the softest and creakiest of foundations. That’s why it is so much more agreeable the more lightly it wears its legacy.

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