Life Moves Pretty Fast: How the 'Ghostbusters' Remake Proves Comedies Aren't the Same Anymore
It seems like everyone was already nostalgic for the 1980s as soon as they were over. By the mid- to late-1990s pop culture started to reflect this longing. Beautiful Girls, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Grosse Point Blank, all released in 1996 and 1997, were about Generation Xers edging toward their 30s looking back on the music and fashion of their youth. The Wedding Singer, also released in 1997, took the next step and went back in time to 1985, immersing itself in a world that already looked so different. That nostalgia has been embraced not just by that forgotten generation signified with an X, but the one that came after: Millennials. But even more than the look and sound of the ‘80s, Millennials love the best snapshot at what the decade was like: movies.
As Hadley Freeman points out in her book from last year, Life Moves Pretty Fast, there are countless movies from that decade that left a lasting impact on pop culture and culture in general across generations. Appropriately enough, the subtitle to the book is Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don’t Learn Them From Movies Anymore). Her book, composed of individual essays on such stalwarts as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dirty Dancing and Batman, argue that this assemblage of celluloid isn’t just fluff but contains real life lessons. She also argues that things have changed so drastically, in terms of humanity but mostly the studio system, that these kinds of movies will never get made again.
Although she was born in 1978, firmly at the tail end of being a Gen Xer, she’s quick to point out how even recent original movies, from 2010’s Easy A to 2012’s Pitch Perfect, directly reference the movies they’re riffing on, are remixes of sorts, while the rest of Hollywood is dominated by remakes and repackagings of movies from the ‘80s, from Poltergeist to Tron: Legacy. And while she discusses the original, one of the remakes she does not bring up is 2016’s Ghostbusters.
The chapter on the original Ghostbusters is specifically about how it teaches life lessons on how to be a man. Freeman argues that no matter what, at the end of the day Venkman, Spengler and Stantz are grown men. They have jobs, first as paranormal professors and then later as Ghostbusters. They are friends: “they like each other, they’re amused by each other, and they stick together when they're fired at the beginning of the film from their university jobs.” And they treat woman as human beings. Venkman may flirt with both the blond student in the opening of the movie and with Sigourney Weaver’s Dana, but in the end he has a good heart. Any hard edges he has are smoothed down by Bill Murray’s self-deprecating humor. And what really cements his hero status is when Dana is possessed and comes on to Venkman strongly, he turns down her proposal of sex. Basically this movie sums up in many different ways how people in the ‘80s appreciated being adults and all that entails.
Freeman contrasts Ghostbusters against comedies made today that are almost exclusively from the male perspective. Specifically for men she calls out the kinds of comedies that tend to star Seth Rogen and were written by Judd Apatow this last decade, namely Knocked Up and Superbad. In these movies the men are always manchildren, usually lacking jobs and meaningful relationships and who only want to sit around and get high. As Freeman quotes Apatow explaining, “For me it's natural to tell stories about people who are resisting the maturation process - there's nothing that's fun about having responsibilities and dealing with real world problems.” In some cases they haven't even moved out of their parents’ house, and they usually tend to view women as shrews holding them back or as unknowable, unattainable objects.
These men also tend to have falling outs, usually in the second act. This is because, as Freeman puts it, “the friendship between the male leads has become so celebrated that it is a (barely) platonic romance and therefore the trajectory of the friendship is like that of a clichéd film love story: boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back.” The end result is characters that act more like children and resist growing up.
Women have a similar but distinct situation. Mostly they don’t even get lead roles, so they’ve been relegated to being the wife/mother/sister/daughter characters for the male protagonist. This has meant in recent movies that they get to be the mature one that ultimately forces the man to grow up, usually leaving behind his bro friends.
Around 2011’s Bridesmaids, however, women started being allowed to be womenchildren. That movie portrays Kristen Wiig as a woman that has recently lost a business and is failing in everything in her life. She struggles with money and relationships, ultimately has to move back in with her mom, and has a falling out with her best friend and new friends in the second act that takes much more of a prominent position in the plot than any romantic entanglement with a man. Essentially it’s the Apatow model but gender swapped, which is appropriate considering Judd Apatow produced it. This would come even more to the fore in 2015’s Trainwreck, and is accompanied by the likes of the TV show Girls and even indie flicks like 2014's Obvious Child.
This brings things around, appropriately enough, to 2016’s Ghostbusters. Co-written and directed by Paul Feig, a throughline is drawn between it and Bridesmaids, which Feig also directed. It stars two prominent actresses from the earlier movie, namely Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, and the two share a similar tone and sense of humor. Wiig plays Dr. Erin Gilbert, a physics professor at Columbia University that had previously written a book on ghosts with McCarthy’s Dr. Abigail Yates. When the movie starts Gilbert is up for tenure at Columbia, but worries that any association with the outlandish book will tarnish her reputation. She approaches Yates, who has a lead on supernatural activity. Ultimately they end up forming the Ghostbusters. But what’s at the core of the movie is that Gilbert abandoned their friendship once before and threatens to once again, quitting the team at the end of the second act. The climax of the movie has Gilbert saving Yates, something that’s almost secondary to defeating the onslaught of ghosts in New York City.
What are the relationships like in the original Ghostbusters? At the start it’s just Spengler, Stantz and Venkman. The former two appear to be friendlier, in as much as Spengler is capable of being friends. Venkman definitely has affection for these two, but he’s a little selfish and self-centered and doesn’t appear to be very close to anyone. His personal growth comes from his relationship with Dana, but even that isn’t based around any strife. They hit it off fairly quickly, even if she’s a little hesitant about him. The conflict comes from her being possessed by Gozer and turned into Zuul, and Venkman having to save her. There’s never any artificial drama based around miscommunication. Winston, unfortunately, doesn’t have much of a personal arc. He’s just the average guy on the street providing an outsider perspective, even if he oddly enough comes in late to the movie.
The arc of the characters overall, really, is about people starting a business, learning how to keep it afloat and ultimately attaining success. This is something summed up succinctly by comedian Paul Scheer on the April 17 episode of The Canon podcast, in which movies are debated on whether they’re worthy of being inducted into the canon of films for all time. And in the end it’s a very grownup concern. Not only are they running a business, but they choose to be Ghostbusters simply out of an urge to help people. At least that’s how it is for Stantz and Spengler.
The aforementioned artificial drama, however, is all over the 2016 Ghostbusters. It’s unclear whether or not this is a side effect of how comedies have evolved overall, and it’s likely that even a male-centric remake of Ghostbusters would involve a more personalized conflict for the heroes. Nary a modern superhero movie, for instance, has the heroes simply saving the world. Instead there has to be some sort of personal connection, with the villain having known the hero in the past or the hero having some responsibility for the problem at hand.
It’s really not a question of male versus female, even if the Internet wanted to make it about that a year ago. A woman, Kate Dippold, co-wrote the screenplay but there’s actually very little more than lipservice to making it about them being women. When the Ghostbusters view a YouTube clip of themselves there’s a joke about the comments being sexist. When Leslie Jones is dropped while attempting to crowdsurf she makes a crack about it being “a race thing or a lady thing.” And Chris Hemsworth’s secretary character is sexualized, becoming an object of lust for Wiig. But this is all surface level.
And perhaps that was Dippold and Feig’s goal, to make a movie where gender is inconsequential and the characters just happen to be women. But the effect is, ironically, neutered. It doesn’t really have anything to say, but by using the standard template of friends having a falling out and having to make up in the climax, it actually works as an anti-feminist statement. It, in fact, plays into the societal narrative that women can’t be friends with one another because they’re pitted against each other in every way, usually in an attempt to win a man.
By contrast, the original Ghostbusters isn’t really about being a man. If anything the quartet are anti-men compared to what was the norm at the time. While Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were tearing up movie screens, in 1984 Bill Murray, Dan Aykryod, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson were just regular Joes. Kind of overweight, not exactly traditionally handsome. Their story is much more of a “slobs versus snobs” dichotomy, which had been done so well before with Animal House. The Ghostbusters are the underdogs, constantly pitted against figures of authority like the hotel clerk or the head of the EPA. They’re men, but not particularly manly, running away like cowards at the beginning and openly expressing affection for one another at the end. They’re untroubled by proving themselves, and instead are incredibly comfortable with who they are and their friendships.
If anything it would have been more feminist for Ghostbusters 2016 to be more like the original. By not putting much effort into its tired script, it grafted a modern template from bro comedies and came up with a story that actually makes women look really bad. They stab each other in the back and abandon one another very easily. And when it comes to saving the world, it’s only important if you also save your friend in the process.
The unfortunate side effect of feminism is that women have an equal opportunity to be in bad blockbusters just like men.
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