With Ghostbusters ubiquitous in the news over the past week, a review of the original film is in order…
Thirty two years on, the most fascinating elements of Ghostbusters are its stretch marks, the product of capricious juxtapositions between gluttonous, outre blockbuster horror and laconic, taciturn, shaggy-dog comedy. It’s easy to remember the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, a slice of gleeful, madcap absurdism wanting for graham cracker to contain it. But in Ghostbusters, bursts of special effects function as puckered-up contrasts and accoutrements rather than a skeletal framework, as is the fundamental failing of most modern blockbuster comedies. In actuality, Ghostbusters has an inveterate proclivity for jarring tonal vacillation, bumbling from gravid to gallows, from garrulous to stolid. It’s a little bit broken, as a matter of fact. But the ramshackle, barely strapped-together nature of the screenplay by stars Harold Ramis and Dan Akroyd inspires endearment rather than enmity. While so many blockbusters settle into a groove and plant their feet in the ground, Ghostbusters is always fortuitously screwing with us, largely because it’s screwing with itself.
The checkered tale of three layabout researchers – Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Akroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), plus a fourth find in Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zedmore – finds them kicked out of their positions at a university only to spontaneously adopt a new life as paranormal investigators. Avoid the idea that it’s a narrative though – Ghostbusters is a recklessly informal motion picture, lounging around and shooting the shit until it remembers its own interest in the phantasmagoria of a modern New York that seemed just a little bit off to everyone except the wealthiest among us. Growing pains aside, Ghostbusters is decidedly an outsider’s motion picture, a blue-collar parable about a time when “entrepreneurial spirit” meant legitimately sticking it to the man in an age of post-industrial fallout. The browbeaten, from-the-gutter titular characters stand in stark contrast to the modern hipster-fried, black-rims-and-tweed tech start-ups that trumpet their employee massage parlors as masks for reliance on crude capitalist contractors who retain and buttress the Reaganite, everyone-for-themselves impulses that Ghostbusters offhandedly reprimands.
The “horror” of Ghostbusters, like the narrative, also isn’t. But the mercurial vibe of the piece, where ghosts and other spooks flutter up with whip-crack efficiency, functions surprisingly well because the special effects interrupt not only the narrative but invade and assault the tone of the motion picture, arriving like anxiety attacks on a lazy summer’s day. Director Ivan Reitman is hardly a nimble or unconventional framer of any tone, least of all horror, so the heavy lifting of the threats in the film is done by the literal static shock the creatures do when they arrive out of nowhere. It’s a film that doesn’t really develop its conflicts so much as haphazardly stutter into them, but the jittery tone affords the film a twitchy personality of note that alleviates some of the doldrums of the usually staid “blockbuster comedy” genre.
The charm of Ghostbusters, however lithe, is admittedly (mostly) insubstantial if not altogether fleeting. The surprisingly dour, anti-establishment tone occasionally borders on self-serving, even if a diabolically off-kilter Bill Murray is a winner throughout, but the real deal breaker is the finale. Here, for the only time, the film is depressingly content to play ball with the expectations of a mainstream effects comedy, even if it fascinatingly expends most of its energy spitballing between tones on its way to the eventual resting place of complacency. The final conflict is exhausted relative to the rest of the film; the bellicose, boisterous nature of the luxuriantly animated finale doesn’t suit the more astringent jabs of the earlier moments; it’s the only point where the film’s precarious, teetering, almost schismatic personality tips in favor of easy grandiosity. It’s a moment where the film strives to wow you, when its usually at its best hanging out and sneaking up on you while you aren’t looking.
On balance, though, Ghostbusters spends enough time being just messy enough, just tangled enough in its own innards, just quietly volatile enough that it can’t but accidentally win you over in spite of, or because of, its winsomely perilous attitude toward its own sanity. It’s a little like a comedy stuck in a row with itself. Only in its final moments, when it finds cohesion, does it fail to at least raise a smirk, if not the aching grin it strives for. Scratch that, actually, because the most satisfying feature of Ghostbusters is how it doesn’t seem to care what you think of it. Again, in the moments where it commits to pleasing your eyes, addressing you from the front, rather than stabbing you in the back, it loses a great deal of its inconstant, mutable luster. Under few definitions is it great cinema, but under as few is it not special in its own intermittent, raffish way.