Ghostbusters **|****

Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters
Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters

There’s been so much said and written about this Sony-backed remake prior to its release that’s it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. I should start by saying that Ghostbusters is not nearly as lame and unfunny as its first trailer (statistically the most “disliked” in YouTube’s history) would suggest. There are some worthwhile laughs here and there and the chemistry between the four female leads is often very strong but in a world congested with a seemingly endless barrage of soulless reboots and sequels, this movie ultimately doesn’t do enough on an action or comedy level to justify its own existence.

The film covers many of the same beats as the original but does divert a bit in its origin story, which finds physics professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) in search of tenure at Columbia University when an embarrassing book she co-write years ago about paranormal studies begins to resurface on Amazon. It turns out that her co-author and estranged friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) is the one responsible for its presence online and she, along with lab geek Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), have continued to study paranormal activity all these years. When malicious apparitions begin to pop up around the city, the three women team up with pseudo-historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) to put the ghosts back in their place.

Director Paul Feig has a specialty for female-led comedies, most recently with last year’s Spy and most successfully with 2011’s Bridesmaids, but he too frequently gets into a bad habit of letting the improvisational talents of actresses like Wiig and McCarthy run too far without being able to reel things in. Many of the exchanges here feel off-the-cuff and while there’s no doubt you can make a funny movie with plenty of improv in it, it’s nevertheless a very hit-or-miss proposition. This time around, the absence of prepared lines of dialogue is often replaced with tepid riffs that feel re-hashed from past characters in each actresses’ career.

It doesn’t help that Wiig and McCarthy get stuck with “straight man” roles that constrict their comedic prowess while Saturday Night Live players McKinnon and Jones steal the show with their more sharply written characters. McKinnon is my personal favorite among the four here, bringing a relentless goofiness and affability to the “mad professor” stereotype that usually made her presence the most magnetic in the frame. Even though Jones does have a couple moments that involve her screaming hysterically to obnoxious effect (one is covered in the aforementioned trailer), she’s oddly the most grounded and believable character in the ghost-hunting action scenes.

Chris Hemsworth also scores a few laughs as the team’s clueless assistant (a line of questioning about his dog names Michael Hat was hysterical) but his character is such a dimwit that he never becomes much more than the butt of jokes about his staggering lack of intelligence. For a movie that’s purported to be progressive in regards to gender politics, it has a disconcerting lack of development in its male characters that often places them on a broad spectrum of foolishness. It’s more likely that this disparity is the result of lazy writing rather than an “agenda” that was consciously conceived but either way, Ghostbusters remains a frivolous and largely lifeless enterprise.