Last night, my wife, a friend and I took in the theatrical re-release of Ghostbusters.
Ghostbusters has long been a mainstay on my top 10 favorite films list. It’s one of the rare films I loved as a kid that, as an adult, improves with each viewing. Although films like Lost in Translation and Rushmore (and, I would argue, Groundhog Day) may have stretched Bill Murray as an actor, it’s his role as Dr. Peter Venkman that perfected Murray’s smart ass lounge lizard persona. The script by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis is by turns witty, creative and tightly honed, mixing blue-collar comedy with supernatural adventure. Director Ivan Reitman has floundered in the nearly 30 years since the film was released (although he did produce Jason Reitman, who has done pretty well for himself) and I still am baffled at how Aykroyd’s career appears to have faded away so quickly. Also, anyone hear from Ernie Hudson lately?
The delight last night was that Ghostbusters still holds up. Murray’s quips are still hilarious, the story still flows and Mr. Stay Puft’s appearance alone is worth several big laughs. The movie works, and those who haven’t had the chance to check out the re-release can still do so next Thursday night.
It’s almost enough to want another Ghostbusters adventure. . . almost.
It seems at least once or twice a year, “news” develops on the long-delayed Ghostbusters 3 (Ghostbusters 2 came out in 1989, if you don’t remember, and had the boys fighting a painting and the guy from “Ally McBeal”). Nothing concrete is (ever) known on this project, but every blurb seems to be fodder for news outlets: “Office” writers were hired to put together a sequel. Reitman was confirmed to direct. Murray will do it, but only if is killed off and returns as a ghost. Dan Aykroyd is really certain it will start shooting in 2012–with or without Murray. Murray has the script but still hasn’t read it (actually, I believe that about Murray). These rumors have been around so long that early ideas had Chris Farley suiting up as a new recruit.
And I just roll my eyes and sigh. Because any way I look at it, Ghostbusters 3 is just a lousy idea, a cash crab that needn’t happen that likely would fail to deliver everything that franchise fans love about the series. So here are five reasons why I think moving forward with a second sequel–even as I realize it’s probably inevitable–is a bad idea.
1.) The original Ghostbusters was a happy accident. As I’ve stated already, I absolutely love 1984’s Ghostbusters. It’s infinitely quotable and one of the few big budget comedies to successfully mix quirky character comedy with the spectacle. But it was very nearly a totally different movie. Dan Aykroyd originally conceived of it as another vehicle for he and fellow Blues Brother John Belushi. The script was not the witty working man riff that the film ended up as and, instead, imagined the Ghostbusters as time-warping SWAT team members who zipped across the galaxy fighting giant ghosts, which were stored in a containment unit at an out-of-city gas station. Reitman realized the idea might not be feasible and suggested the New York-centric story and, over time, the film almost included John Candy (as Louis Tully), Paul Reubens (as Gozer!) and Eddie Murphy (who the part of Winston was written for–if it had gone to Murphy, Winston would have been a part of the group from the beginning and would have been the one slimed at the hotel).
Instead, Ghostbusters is a dry, witty comedy that happens to include supernatural elements and special effects. The cast’s chemistry is why this works and chemistry is a very hard thing to get. Reitman and his cast stumbled upon some sort of comedy magic that allows this film to be deadpan and over-the-top at the same time–and a look at some of the film’s deleted scenes (including the prelude to Slimer’s attack at the hotel) suggest a film that easily could have become silly, farcical and loud. Much of the reason Ghostbusters 2 doesn’t work as well is because it goes too far for the cartoony jokes (ghosts in electric chairs, the walking Statue of Liberty, Slimer helping the gang)–it doesn’t realize that the original successfully told two stories–a serious paranormal adventure filtered through the shenanigans of some working class stiffs struggling to make a buck. It succeeds not because of its imagination and wit (although those things are plentiful), but because Reitman and Company nail the tone somewhere between serious and silly. And tone is one of the hardest things to get right, particularly in comedies. Given how everyone’s career has evolved over the years — and, in particularly, given that Reitman seems to have lost his touch — I can’t see them recapturing the magic.
2. Aykroyd doesn’t get it. While the spotlight is always on Murray as the lone hold-out for Ghostbusters 3, what gets lost in the story is that Dan Aykroyd seems to be the only one who really wants this to happen. Harold Ramis has a solid directing career (Analyze This and Groundhog Day can forgive a lot of Year Ones), Reitman seems content to watch his son take the family spotlight and Murray has reinvented himself as a serious actor (although he was wonderfully funny in last year’s Get Low). But Aykroyd’s career is bizarrely stalled, and he is nothing more than a pitch man these days for his House of Blues franchise and a vodka. I don’t really know where his career derailed (possibly the sitcom where he was a motorcycle-driving pastor), but I can forgive him for wanting to chase the ghost (no pun intended) of his past success.
But even Aykroyd doesn’t get why people love Ghostbusters. He’s okay with doing the film without Murray (more on that in a moment) because he believes that people love the series because of its mythology and would be fine seeing a new batch of young Ghostbusters fighting new, advanced supernatural threats (more on that in a moment too). Drafts of his Ghostbusters 3 take the team to a bizarre underworld called Manhellton, which is like New York…except it’s hell. Every indication I get from Aykroyd is that he believes people don’t care about the Ghostbusters characters, they care about the supernatural adventures. As long as they’re nailing the scares, then people will come.
I don’t understand that. You mention Ghostbusters to someone, I doubt they’re going to say that their fondest memories include Gozer, Slimer, Viggo the Carpathian or pink slime. The success of Ghostbusters comes from a cast of strong comedians creating likable, memorable characters. People who love the film love it because of Peter Venkman’s wise cracks, Egon’s nerdiness, Louis Tully’s geekiness or Winston’s…well, Winston always gets that shaft, doesn’t he? Even the most memorable special effects sequence–the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man–is funny because it’s a product of Ray’s childlike imagination warped into a giant killing machine. Watching the film last night, I was surprised how short the film’s final confrontation is, and it’s basically staged as one long night of overtime.
That is why Ghostbusters works. It’s a comedy about working men whose job just happens to include facing the supernatural. Catching ghosts and saving the world? It’s just all in a day’s work for them, and the film works because it plays it straight. Giving too much weight to the supernatural aspects robs the film of its humor and charm, and I just don’t think Aykroyd gets that (he has a bad habit of not getting it, by the way. He thought people wanted to see the Blues Brothers turned into zombies in Blues Brothers 2000.)
3. You’re not going to get the film you want. Let’s just say that the stars align, Columbia Pictures wants to make some cash and they move forward with Ghostbusters 3. I can hear the refrain now–“I don’t care if it’s as good as the original; I just want to see the Ghostbusters together again.”
But that’s not what you’re getting. The plan from the beginning has been a passing-of-the-torch story, with the original Ghostbusters showing up in glorified cameos to train a team of new recruits (and, depending on the rumor of the week, Venkman is a ghost). You’re not going to see Ray, Egon, Peter and Winston fighting ghosts and cracking wise. You’re basically going to get a supernatural version of The Expendables–with the reunion you’ve been waiting for shoe-horned into five minutes of other characters’ stories. Do you really want that? Is there anyone right now who you could see as new Ghostbusters?
Yes, there are actors who I think could possibly tackle this material. I think Joel McHale has a great Bill Murray vibe, and people might hate me for saying this, but Seth Rogen could pass for a Ray-ish character. And why not throw a woman in there? Could Kristen Wiig bust some ghosts? But those actors would bring a new tone and I fear it would constantly brush up against those who did it better the first time (remember when Scream 4 tried to bring in a new cast alongside the originals?).
I hate to say the R-word, but I would almost prefer a remake rather than a cash grab of a sequel. If you must revisit this well, don’t do it at the expense of the characters we love the most. Do a remake with a new cast that has a totally different chemistry. Do a story of a new franchise in Chicago or L.A. Do anything but drag out characters we love for one last, wheezy go-around.
And Venkman as a ghost? I don’t know why this idea strikes some people as funny. I guess because it’s a dark twist–although Ghostbusters is not a dark movie. And I think people believe it would allow Murray to do some pratfalls and silly behavior. But Ghostbusters Bill Murray was not the same as What About Bob Bill Murray. Peter Venkman was funny not because he was goofy, but because he was dry and deadpan…why would that be any funnier if he were a ghost?
4. Without Murray, you have no Ghostbusters. Another instance of Aykroyd not getting it. The idea of moving forward with a Ghostbusters sequel and including the original cast sans Murray is idiotic. The film works precisely because of Murray. Venkman is not only the funniest role in the film, he’s also the one that makes the film accessible to audiences. Egon and Ray are both believers in the supernatural, eager to start a business of paranormal investigation and elimination. They believe this stuff, they are sincere about it.
As his superior points out in the beginning, Venkman treats science as some sort of dodge or hustle. As Dana Barrett puts it, he’s less like a scientist and more like a game show host. Yes, we know Venkman believes it–he has a Ph.D. in parapsychology. But he always is distanced from the seriousness, cracking wise at the surreality they find themselves in and treating it cavalierly. For us, Venkman is the audience surrogate who says “this is silly. This is absurd. Let’s roll with this.” Remember what I said about tone? Bill Murray’s work is the crucial factor in nailing this film’s tone. Without it, you have no Ghostbusters–it’s like what happens when a Star Wars film has no Han Solo.
And should we expect Murray to throw fans a bone and do the series? I don’t. Murray is in a career phase where he’s doing some of his most fascinating work. Yes, I miss silly Bill Murray–but his cameo in Zombieland was more than enough to satisfy that. If Bill Murray decides it might be fun to do the series again, great. If not, let him move on, because his career is far from in a rut.
5. You Don’t Really Want this. Drew McWeeny of Hitfix has addressed this particular fandom quirk before. Fans think they want something, but the inevitable results can only be disappointing. You thought you wanted to see Indiana Jones one last time. You thought you wanted to see the war against the machines in Terminator. You thought you wanted to see Jack Sparrow one last time or learn just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
You don’t–you just want a chance for something you loved to work in that same way again. But it can’t. You’re older. The world is different and certain films are products of their time and a peculiar piece of magic. Ghostbusters is a film of the 1980s and works because of that. It works because, in 1984, four comedians and a director managed to capture lightning in a bottle. Anything else will either fail to capture the tone, not give audiences the story they want or will disappoint because it’s simply a cash-grab.
Trust me on this: leave Ghostbusters alone. Re-release it in theaters every few years. Enjoy your DVD and Blu-Ray. And be thankful that they haven’t tarnished its memory (yet).