Harold Ramis ruined my adulthood.
“You must have that all backwards,” you might say, mansplaining (I kid!)(maybe), “everyone knows that it’s the new things that ruin the old things! Like what 90s George Lucas did to 70s George Lucas! Like the Poseidon Adventure remake! Like that feminazi misandrist new Ghostbusters reboot! That’s how you ruin a childhood! Now leave me be, silly woman, I’m gonna go play with He-Mans.”
But you are wrong, and also kind of a dick it seems, person reading this article. Harold Ramis ruined my adulthood, and he did it by being on the forefront of a very new kind of comedy for mainstream audiences, one built on sketch and improv. Ramis, if you don’t recall, got his start in the Second City improv school, where he met life-long friends and exceptional talents like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner; in 1976 Ramis would star and act as head writer for SCTV, the Second City’s answer to SNL‘s runaway success a year prior, which would introduce people like John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, and Rick Moranis to the world.
I grew up in the mid-to-late-80s, and it feels like everything I ever learned about comedy at that young age had some kind of connection to that funny deadpan guy with the fuzzy hair. SCTV. SNL. Caddyshack (Ramis’ first time directing). Animal House. Stripes (God, I love Stripes). National Lampoon’s Vacation. And yes, Ghostbusters.
The late 70s and early 80s were kind of a golden age for Hollywood; not in the glitzy, gilded sense of the 1940s and 50s, but in terms of filmcraft and writing and character. This was evident not only in the naturalism shown by Woody Allen or the familial glow of Spielberg, but also in the irreverent, slouchy comedy of the period. Humor on-screen was changing, and the days of pratfalls and gags waned as more literal and subversive comedy continued to push the envelopes of tolerance and taste. Just 12 years after Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho became the first film to ever show a toilet flushing onscreen, Pink Flamingos showed a transvestite lead character consuming dog poop.
John Waters, the director of Pink Flamingos, spoke recently in an interview looking back on his career (you should check it out), but something really caught my attention that helped focus some thoughts I had about comedy for a long time. Waters films can be so outrageous that people have accused his casts of not knowing they were being in a comedy, since obviously anyone trying to be silly wouldn’t be so extremely committed to to playing the humor so straight (also this is probably the first time anyone accused Waters’ anything of being straight, but I digress).
“Don’t ever wink to the audience. Play it as if you believe every line.” – John Waters, professional subversive
That was the spirit of the new comedy in that era, and rather than coming across as downbeat and abstract, it was the contrast of straight-faced seriousness with ridiculous concepts that really helped sell the humor. It transcended the vaudevillian pratfalls and comedies of manners of generations past for something more profane and, well… fucking hilarious.
It really feels like that era of comedy hit its apogee with Ghostbusters in 1984. That was the high watermark from which everything rolled back. It was the perfect balance of Ramis’ comedy style, Dan Ackroyd’s writing, solid performances from comedy legends, and a big enough budget to get really, really crazy. I have a list of All-Time Perfect Films; it’s fairly short, but Ramis has two entries on it, and this is one of them. After that release, this kind of comedy began to trail off as audiences gravitated more toward high-concept action-comedies and more teen-centric fare from people like John Hughes, but here we are 30+ years later fondly remembering Caddyshack and Vacation while no one really remembers Tango & Cash was even a thing.
When I was a kid, I remember putting those worn out VHS tapes in my family’s tire-sized VCR every rainy day and every weekend night before my bedtime, and I even remember when I was really young being a little scared of some of the ghosts Murray, Ramis, Ackroyd, and Hudson sent to the big house in the great beyond. Those movies taught me what good comedy was, and how a smart gag would be remembered forever, and how you got more laughs from the jokes when you cared about the characters. It was the sublime meeting of intelligent ideas and excellent execution. So yes, Harold Ramis was one of the greatest comedy minds in cinema, and his setting of standards so high has made everything that fails to aspire to that level seem, well, disappointing. Little since his heyday matches up (though the work Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg have been putting out comes close). My adulthood has been ruined by the spoils of my youth, and the original Ghostbusters is that era’s halotype.
I hope I don’t need to brandish my progressive/sex-positive/feminist credentials here to assert my affiliation (but I will, goddammit, don’t you fuckin’ test me, I’ll brandish them so fast it’ll make your head spin), however I also ain’t looking to be the Armond White of woman-positive film: Paul Feig’s remake of Ghostbusters just isn’t very good. It’s actually almost bad. I could go into a lot of detail on the individual points here, but many other people have (including right here at the Kraken), so this won’t be a piece on that exactly. In short, Kristen Wiig’s dialogue is flat, Kate McKinnon is a cartoon character beamed in from another planet, Leslie Jones is a sassy blue-collar stereotype that would have been regressive 15 years ago, the cameos from the 1984 cast are just jarring, bizarre, and meritless, the script is abysmal, the comedy is the worst kind of telegraphing and mugging, the special effects are sloppy and over-produced, and the motivation for the whole production is highly questionable.
I find myself at a loss to understand what exactly this movie was going for. The ultra-slick effects and zany tone don’t have anything in common with the source material’s practical appeal, and the comedy on display is surprisingly broad; Ghostbuster Patty basically screams all her lines with an over-the-top affect that leaves no question whether or not she’s making a joke, Holtzmann is more like a random exaggerated-face generator, and Kristen Wiig plays dowdy and inhibited to a degree that would impress most Amish women (should they somehow find themselves in a cinema). Everything is hyperbole, which is I know is Paul Feig’s style, but tonal continuity across a filmography isn’t the currency of absolution; I’m delighted that he gives high-profile work to so many talented women, I just wish his version of “broad” comedy wasn’t just a bad double entendre. I’ve seen the talented female comics go beyond mugging and hoary cliches; this is a world where people like Amy Schumer, Chelsea Peretti, Rose Byrne, and Tina Fey roam the countryside with wild abandon, leaving smart comedy strewn around in their wake.
I’m really not trying to assert that the reason this remake fails is because it’s not a carbon copy of the original; films like The Thing, The Fly, and Ocean’s Eleven deviated wildly in tone, story, and character from their wellspring and went on to be hugely popular with critics and audiences alike. I do think, however, that the chief reason behind this film’s failure is a lack of effort. It’s simply lazy, from the story and characters to the music and effects. This film had quite the shoes to fill, and instead just went barefoot. It never answers that question, “Why does this even exist?” beyond the cynical answer, “Because people will pay to see it.” (Turns out they might not, actually.) There’s very little there to support the idea that anyone involved with this production understood why people liked the 1984 film.
However, one thing I’ll never know is how this remake holds up for those unfortunate souls that have never seen the original. Do they like the try-hard silliness? The low-brow humor? The garish special effects? The shoddy and minimal characterization? Don’t get me wrong, I’m jazzed as shit about a big-budget movie with an all-female cast–especially one that isn’t totally driven by male-gaze grossness–but that doesn’t mean I’m in the business of giving out passing marks out of some tribalistic sense of sorority. A shit film is a shit film, even if it passes the Bechdel Test. If this film tried as hard to be good as it does to remind audiences of its tenuous connection to its source material it might have been salvageable, but as it stands it’s neither fish nor fowl; not artful and intelligent enough to elicit a connection to the spirit of the Eighties version, and not confident enough in itself to stand outside it.
It’s weird though, the constant callbacks to the 1984 version. The new film doesn’t exist in the same continuity, so it’s just big flashing winks at the audience that are supposed to do… something? “Remember that Bill Murray was in the original? Well, here he is, too! Looking so bored and humorless he might actually die and become a ghost himself!” “Remember how Ernie Hudson was just kinda shoehorned into the first film artlessly? We’ll, we’ve got that beat! He’s only got two lines at the very end and neither are funny!” I dunno, it just comes across as trying so hard to win the audience over by associating itself with better, already-beloved things, that it seems desperate and simply poor form. I just watched all eight hours of Netflix’s Stranger Things and that did an amazing job of reminding me of what I loved about movies in the Peak Spielberg era–the palpable textures of celluloid, the warm color palette, the great characterizations, the celebration of eeriness and suspense over spectacle, the use of composition and sound to build atmosphere–without ever making me cringe in embarrassment. But if Stranger Things is a love song to the pop culture of yesteryear, Ghostbusters 2016 is the cast of Glee covering John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”–unqualified, oblivious to its context, and ultimately totally unnecessary.
I don’t even know if nu-Ghostbusters wants to be it’s own thing; it features cameos by the original cast, it uses some of the same locations, it recreates several famous scenes from the first film, it uses the same theme song, the same logo, the same kind of car and equipment, and goddamn, even the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and Slimer drop by. I can’t honestly argue it needs to be judged on its own merits, because it’s fairly clear the film itself doesn’t seem to think it has many. This is just a remix. A new coat of paint. An allusion to a better work, it never tries very hard to stand on its own, picking low-hanging fruit whenever it can.
As I surmised earlier, the hate that the Reddit/RedPill/MRA/GamerGate/DipshitMisogynistsAnonymous trash heap spewed upon this film for merely existing and rubbing its vulva all over the good name of manhood is just fucking ridiculous. Nothing about this film is made lesser by this cast; they’re all talented to one degree or another, and at least there’s a decent canonical reason the non-scientist joins the team in this iteration. It’s a bad film, yes–and worse than that, it’s a disappointing film. Sony and Feig knew what was riding on this film’s success and just whiffed, choosing artless pandering over trying to make something truly special. In the following weeks the film’s grosses have painted an unclear picture of this franchise’s future–it’s made okay money and has a word-of-mouth less toxic than Suicide Squad, but isn’t lighting the box office on fire–but I hope I can use this space to reiterate the notion that whatever ultimate failure befalls this film, if any, isn’t the fault of the cast’s chromosomal homogeneity. If there’s a film out there where a good cast saved a bad script, bad conception, and bad execution, I don’t think I’ve seen it.
The original Ghostbusters has endured and become a cinematic classic because of a perfect blend of talent, story, performance, and artistic vision–something you can’t replicate just by throwing money at a release date. Sadly, Ramis is the first Ghostbuster to cross over to the afterlife; whether tangibly or just as a memory of his talents, his specter will haunt this franchise forever.