GHOSTBUSTERS AFTERLIFE feels like the inevitable dead end for modern fan culture
Plus a review of Will Smith's winning new star vehicle
It’s Friday, November 19, and here’s where we are…
I think I’ve got to do something different with this newsletter.
I write long. It is a curse. That’s a lot of fun to read, but it’s not great in terms of being able to consistently have new content for you here. I’ve been trying to push myself to figure out ways to give you guys more to read, but every time I sit down to write something short, I fail.
Starting the Monday after Thanksgiving, I’m going to try a new format that will give you at least one thing to read every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That way, I can focus on chipping away at longer pieces without feeling like I’m leaving you guys high and dry. I know there are endless options for what you can do with your money, and I take it seriously that you chose to spend some of that money on my newsletter. I appreciate it, and I want to make sure you’re getting more than what you pay for.
Today, I want to dive right into a review it gives me no pleasure to write…
DROWNING IN THE FAMILIAR
Ghostbusters was released when I was 14. I was about to leave for Boy Scout camp. It was set to be the longest I’d ever stayed away from home and I was excited. It made me crazy, though, because I was leaving on the same day that Ghostbusters came out, and I was absolutely bananas about that film. It looked like it was going to be the exact thing I’d been waiting for, a big ‘80s FX film with a big rowdy SNL heart, and I managed to talk my parents into taking me to the film at the first show so I could see it before they dropped me off for the bus to camp.
For those full two weeks, I was the one person in that camp who had seen Ghostbusters, and I felt like I had this gigantic secret no one fully understood. I tried explaining it. I tried summarizing it. No use. I spent those two weeks desperate to see it again, and the day we got back, I took my buddy who had been at camp with me so he could see what I’d been raving about, and he lost his mind the exact same way.
I ended up seeing Ghostbusters at least four or five more times that summer, going with different friends or groups of friends. I loved it, and when Ghostbusters II came out in ’89, it played at the theater where I was assistant manager. I probably saw it six or seven times during its release and watched bits and pieces of it countless more times. I recognize it’s problems as a sequel, and in many ways, it is emblematic of everything toxic going on behind the scenes in Hollywood in the late ‘80s, but it’s still got plenty of bits and scenes and lines and moments that I enjoy because I like the characters and the vibe of the first film.
While I have continued to buy those films in various formats and revisit them over time, and I’ve certainly shared them with my kids, I have always seen them as fun comedies that both feel shaggy and barely competent as films in some ways. The first movie is an accident, a release date that they had to meet, and they were working on the script all the way through production and radically restructuring the film right up until release. It’s held together by Ivan Reitman’s tears and Dan Aykroyd’s mania and Bill Murray’s powerful Bugs Bunny charisma. It’s barely finished in places. I’ve always been fascinated by movies that work in spite of how they were made, not because of it, and Ghostbusters is one of the best examples of that.
Right around the time my marriage imploded, I was contracted to write a book about Ghostbusters, and I set to work doing all of the interviews for it. I spoke to everyone but Murray about it, since Murray did his Bigfoot routine, ducking every attempt to pin him down. Ramis had already passed by that point, but he and I actually got to talk about that film and Caddyshack at length on the set of Year One. I had pretty much the full Ghostbusters experience while doing those interviews, including sitting in the Ghostbusters room at Ray Parker Jr.’s house and getting yelled at by Michael Gross, but when it came to actually writing that book, my personal life just plain kicked my ass and the publisher ended up moving on to another writer. It was disappointing, but it may have been for the best. Part of what I love about the film is that shabby-around-the-edges quality, and that’s not something they really felt like celebrating.
I frequently feel like I’m out of touch with “fandom” and what they want, and maybe that’s because I’ve never made one pop culture artifact my entire personality. When Paul Feig released Ghostbusters in 2016, it never occurred to me to make it the battle line in some weird culture war that’s playing out. Feig’s film works in fits and starts, but it makes one big weird mistake by rebooting instead of just adding to what already existed. They easily could have made the same movie set in a world where they introduced all-new characters working for the company that already existed, and it would have calmed down much of the weird fury that people felt toward the film. Ghostbusters has a remarkably elastic premise for a franchise, anyway, and it’s always seemed strange that it’s so hard for the studio to figure out what to do with it.
Once Feig took his swing, that felt like the end of the line, but today marks the release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and I’m really dispirited by the entire enterprise. I offer up all of this preamble to say that I feel like I should be the easiest mark in the world for this film. I think I’m the exact person this is aimed at, just like Halloween Kills, and just like with that movie, I find myself recoiling from the whole thing. I’ve heard Jason Reitman’s sales pitch about how he ran from his legacy for his whole career but now it feels like it was finally time to embrace it, and it’s fascinating how that story arc plays out pretty much as a direct parallel to his critical and commercial success. I like several of Reitman’s films. I think Up in The Air is terrific. I adore Young Adult. I like the script read series he did. I don’t dislike him, necessarily, but I am not a fan of the way they’re framing this entire thing, leaning on the idea that he’s King Arthur, pulling the fucking sword from the stone because he finally decided to cash in on the easiest possible franchise movie for him to make. I’m sure Ghostbusters looked very appealing to a guy coming off of the box-office run of Labor Day, Men, Women & Children, Tully, and The Front Runner. I hate feeling this cynical, but when I’m confronted with a product (because this is Product, first and foremost) that is this calculated and crass, it sets it off in me.
Feig’s movie suffers from one kind of reverence towards the 1984 film, remaking it without directly remaking it in a way that doesn’t really work. Reitman’s film is nothing but reverent, though, and I personally found it suffocating. This is a masterpiece of “Hey, I recognize that thing from the other thing!” cinema, and if all you want from a movie is Lots of Things To Recognize, buckle up. This is a movie about nostalgia that is smothered in nostalgia, and I found it confusing more than emotional. When I think of Ghostbusters, I don’t get weepy. It doesn’t make me feel wistful and emotional. The original movie is about a bunch of academic con men who skirt the law and fight supernatural special effects for a few hours. It is brash and silly and dense with this delightful technobabble that was a specialty of Dan Aykroyd’s. One of the reasons people made fun of the second film was because of the “New Yorkers need to be nice to each other” finale, feeling like it defanged the first film’s genuinely acidic worldview.
I’ve heard the explanation that people saw this when they were children and now they want something that makes them think of childhood, and fine. At that point, I have to accept that I have a totally different relationship to these movies than some people. I wonder if the people who get all blubbery over Ghostbusters also watched the animated show as kids. I did not, and I don’t really care about the larger “Ghostbusters universe.” I love the absurdity of Aykroyd’s supernatural babble. I don’t take it seriously as a “mythology,” and I’m getting tired of hearing the words “mythology” and “world-building.” They feel like corporate catch-phrases now, ground down from overuse, something you order out of a catalog now, not something that’s happening organically in the storytelling.
I don’t understand the choice to make a children’s adventure movie instead of a comedy. Even so, they slavishly ape the structure of the 1984 film once this movie reaches the mid-point, and it feels even stranger when you’re not watching a comedy before that. There’s amiable banter in some of the early scenes, but that’s not the same thing as making a comedy. This film’s idea of a big joke is that there’s a kid named Podcast who is called that because… wait for it… he’s got a podcast. Affable? Maybe. But a comedy? No. Not really. Not in any significant way.
Now… let’s talk about what works. Mckenna Grace stars as Phoebe, and it’s her film, really. She’s a young girl with a divorced mom and an older brother, and their family is just barely hanging on. Callie (Carrie Coons) is nursing a lot of anger over the way her father, Egon Spengler, abandoned her, and her older brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) doesn’t really get her. Based on the marketing, I thought Wolfhard was the lead of the film. That would have made sense based on the success of Stranger Things and It, but Phoebe is the lead of the film and Grace is absolutely terrific in the role. I like the entire cast, honestly. Everyone does exactly what they were hired to do, and I particularly like the relationship between Phoebe and Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), her summer-school teacher. Why a genius like Phoebe would have to take summer school just because her family moves to Oklahoma is never addressed, but that’s kind of the way this film works. It’s all mechanically engineered. Things happen because they have to happen, and it feels like so much of the film is concerned with nudging the audience instead of just telling a story. Before our screening, there was an intro with Jason Reitman proudly telling us there are over 300 “Easter Eggs” hidden in the film, which gave me a sinking feeling right away. Sure enough, pretty much every scene in the film references the earlier movies. It’s non-stop. And, yes, this is a sequel, so some of that is to be expected, but this is just insane and incessant.
Take the scene that they’ve been using to sell the movie for months now, where Paul Rudd sees a bunch of little Sta-Puft marshmallow men run wild in a Wal-Mart. I don’t get it. I don’t get why it’s supposed to be funny, and I don’t get it on a story level. The only reason Sta-Puft appeared in the first film was because Ray Stantz, terrified at the prospect of the end of the world, tried to picture something harmless and safe when told to choose the form of a giant destructor spirit. It was a very particular appearance, and once he was gone, that should have been it. There’s no reason we get hundreds of little Sta-Pufts beyond “they were in the other film and now there are more of them and more means better, right?”, and that’s not funny to me.
We’ve got Demon Dogs again. We’ve got the return of Zuul. There’s a Gatekeeper. There’s a Keymaster. The first half of the film is structured as a mystery where you know the solution immediately because they’re so shamelessly determined to use every beat of the first movie again in some way, and then the second half of the film is a more family-friendly remake of the first movie. I love Carrie Coons and Paul Rudd, and they both do their very best to make this count, but it’s an illusion. It looks like a real movie because it’s got a real cast giving real performances, but it’s not. It feels like the whole thing was carefully constructed based on a message board of Ghostbusters fans. “Make sure we see that wacky hat Rick Moranis was wearing! Make sure Sigourney Weaver’s got those flash cards!” Okay, okay, I fucking surrender! You are the most Ghostbusters thing that has ever Ghostbustered! Please stop screaming at me, movie!
The entire film is defined by the absence of Harold Ramis, which makes sense. I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is the choice made by the filmmakers at the end of the film, and there’s no way to fully address this film without writing about it. I find the decision to use a fully-rendered photorealistic CGI Harold Ramis grotesque, and I don’t care who approved or how many ways they tell me it’s okay. I don’t care how technically adept it is or how perfectly it looks like him. I’m totally cool with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson suiting up for this because they got to make that choice. But Bill Murray spent over 20 years roadblocking a sequel, as was his right, and I hate to think that if he’d died in the late ‘90s, they would have just thrown a CGI version of him into the film anyway. I have no idea what Ramis would have done regarding this movie, but I do know that he didn’t get any input on that decision, and at some point, we’re going to have to get serious about preventing this kind of thing from happening. I don’t even think the estates should get to make this kind of choice. Once you’re dead, you should stop appearing in films. I know that in real life, Ramis and Murray had a complicated relationship, one they never resolved professionally, and if there was a film where they finally reunited at this age, I would be the first one to buy a ticket. That’s not what this is, though, and honestly, the entire finale made my skin crawl a bit. I understand every impulse that Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan had here, and according to the basic fundamental rules of storytelling, it has to end with Egon finally appearing. It’s a choice I found distasteful top to bottom, though, and it’s one of the reasons I reject the film completely.
In the end, here’s what I’ll say: I don’t really care which film you do or don’t prefer. I think they’re equally problematic and it all comes down to which flavor of “not very good” you prefer. What’s very clear is that Ghostbusters is all about tone. If you reject the tone of one of these movies, there’s nothing you can do about it. If you do not like the comic choices made by Paul Feig and his cast, you’re going to reject that film outright. If you don’t like the nostalgic emphasis that Jason Reitman decided to embrace, then there’s nothing for you here. I will simply point out one major difference between the two, and then we’ll wrap it up.
In Feig’s Ghostbusters, Bill Murray, who famously said he would never return to the franchise, actually shows up as a brand-new character. He seems to genuinely enjoy playing the William Atherton role this time around, a smug and skeptical jackass who causes real problems for the Ghostbusters. In Reitman’s new film, he shows up for a few minutes and lobs half-hearted versions of his 1984 banter at his dead friend and yet another Gozer. He looks older in this film than he’s ever looked in anything, and he also looks disinterested at best. I think how you feel about each of these appearances may well sum up how you feel about the movies themselves. Personally? I would much rather see a version where the old cast tries something new than the equivalent of a Comic-Con appearance. But that’s me.
Now that we’ve seen two different radically different attempts and neither one of them really works, maybe it’s time to admit that chasing all of these sequels to films that are 30 or 40 years old and attempting to reproduce whatever chemical magic it was that made them special in the first place is a losing bet. Maybe there’s no good Ghostbusters sequel out there. At this point, I wish we could retire all of the Terminators and the Ghostbusters and the Men In Black. They’re all turning into Police Academy at this point, endlessly churning IP that only exists to satisfy stockholders. None of this is fun anymore, and when all of these reboots and requels culminate in a scene where the original Ghostbusters stand around a dead guy reproduced through CGI, crying, something has gone horribly, permanently wrong.
Will Smith’s gonna win an Oscar.
Maybe more than one this year if he plays his cards right, since he’s a producer as well as a star of King Richard, which is in theaters and on HBO Max today The film is straightforward and old-fashioned in some ways and completely satisfying, and it is a terrific showcase for Smith’s strengths as an actor as well as a reminder of the virtues of simple, sincere storytelling. Based on the true story of Serena and Venus Williams and their rise to dominance as tennis legends, the film focuses on Richard Williams, their father, as a framework for telling that story.
I’ve seen some grumbling that it’s weird that a biopic about two of the most powerful women to ever play professional sports would focus on their father, but when you see the film, it makes perfect sense. Richard Williams and his “plan” are the structure, but by the time the film concludes, Venus and Serena very much step forward to take their place at the center of things. It’s a family film, but not in the “all the rough edges sanded off” meaning of the description. It’s a film about the dynamics of family, the way family can support you or frustrate you or lift you up or break your heart, and every single member of the family is perfectly played here. Smith may be the center, but the film doesn’t work if we don’t love Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). These kids were put on a path early by this hyper-vigilant father, but they also both had a remarkable aptitude for this game, and both Sidney and Singleton manage to convince us that they are genuinely gifted athletes while also expertly playing every tricky emotional shift that the film asks of them. Aunjanue Ellis is terrific as Oracene Williams, their mother, and she manages to show us how she could love Richard and be driven crazy by him at the same time, with her children always serving as the north star she uses to orient herself.
Jon Bernthal is one of those character actors who has consistently done great work, whatever’s asked of him, but he’s never been given a role quite like Rick Macci, one of the coaches who are instrumental to Richard’s plan. Macci’s just as eccentric a character as Richard is, and Bernthal and Smith are perfectly matched here. There’s a great comic energy between them and real dramatic tension. Tony Goldwyn is equally good as Paul Cohen, another coach, but Bernthal’s got the real showstopper of a supporting role.
What I love most about the script by Zach Baylin is how straightforward it is. When I say King Richard is old-fashioned, I mean it is sincere and there’s no fat on it at all. It starts with Richard working to make his girls famous and it ends with Venus taking her first step onto that larger stage. It is a compact, streamlined story about a particular moment in the lives of these super-famous people, told with sensitivity and heart, and it just plain works. Reinaldo Marcus Green has a very unfussy style as a storyteller. A lot of what I like about his work on this film is true of Joe Bell as well, but this film has a much better screenplay. He’s not afraid of emotion and he doesn’t oversell it. He’s not trying to make himself the center of attention with the way he stages or shoots his scenes, but he does have a strong visual command. His real strength is in his work with actors, and I can’t say enough good about the ensemble work here.
As a parent, all you ever want is to see your child reach their full potential, to see them happy and healthy and somehow fulfilled. That’s a lot, and we can put too much pressure on them in pursuit of that. We can also fail by not being strict enough. It’s an incredibly tough line to walk, and we are largely defined by the role models we had, whether we’re emulating them or fighting against them. The relationship we have with our children may be the most important relationship we ever have as people, and I know I worry about it all the time. There are things I hope my children learn from me, and there are so many more ways that I hope they surpass me completely. I am nothing like Richard Williams, but I see in him the same things that drive me, and I suspect every parent alive will find something in this film that will make them respond.
The reason I opened this review by mentioning Will Smith’s awards potential isn’t becasue I’m invested in the race. I certainly don’t think awards mean anything about how good a film is. Awards season is a very particular game, and aside from being a great performance in a smart, enjoyable mainstream movie, there’s something about this role that feels irresistible to Academy voters. Smith’s been plugging away for a while, and he’s one of the last big movie stars. This feels like a more focused version of what he did in The Pursuit of Happyness, and a distillation of a lot of what he’s done throughout his career, which is exactly the kind of role the Academy loves to reward. It’s not based on a game or a TV show or another movie. It’s not about some high concept. It’s just a movie about a father who saw a way to raise his family up and who chased that dream with single-minded intensity, nearly breaking that family in the process. It’s such a simple human story, but then you remember that the punchline is that two of his girls ended up being two of the greatest American athletes of all time, and it just seems incredible, impossible, unreal. In an age where everything that anyone releases seem to become objects in this ongoing culture war, this truly feels like a film that everyone should be able to embrace equally, and that’s the magic trick that I think gives Smith the inside edge.
Let’s do a few Quick Bites before I wrap it up…
Did you see the season finale of What We Do In The Shadows? If you’re not watching this vampire comedy, you should seriously rethink the way you’re spending your free time. The entire third season of the series was a comic triumph, bending the basic concept yet again and finding great new ways to wring every bit of comic juice out of that amazing cast. I thought they took a huge narrative gamble this season involving Colin Robinson, the energy vampire, and it’ll be interesting to see how it pays off when they return for their next season. It was one of those things where they spent much of the season making choices that didn’t make a ton of sense until that final piece dropped into place, and I personally thought it was well worth the wait. When this made the jump from film to TV show, I thought I would dislike the switch in casts, but the opposite is true. Now I’m completely in love with this ensemble, and I can’t imagine it any other way. I am excited to see what another year of this show looks like and just how far they’ll continue to bend and evolve the joke. They’ve already done more than I ever would have guessed possible with something as basic as “funny vampires in a mockumentary.”
Officially licensed video games are a real hit-or-miss proposition. I get the appeal… if you love something like Star Wars or Batman, then why wouldn’t you want to be able to play inside that world? Sometimes you get a game that works as a game, something that transcends the license and stands on its own, but most of the time, you get games that feel like marketing opportunities first, games second. Marvel has had extraordinary success recently (Spider-Man, Miles Morales) and they’ve also whiffed fairly hard (The Avengers), so I had no idea what to expect with Guardians of the Galaxy. I played the PS5 version of the game, and I’d say the end result is one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had with a game in quite a while. You play as Star-Lord, but there’s a co-operative combat system that allows you to also direct Groot, Rocket, Gamora, and Drax over the course of the story. They’re not using the film versions of the characters, but they’re not really the original comic versions, either. It’s somewhere between the two, and taking that approach allows them to tell their own story without having to lean on anything we have or haven’t seen in James Gunn’s films. There are about 20 hours of gameplay here depending on how much of a completionist you are, but it’s a rich and rewarding 20 hours. The game’s got a rowdy sense of humor, and it understands that each of the Guardians plays a key role in the group’s dynamic. No one’s forced into the background here, not even Groot. The game tells a story that spans a huge chunk of the galaxy, incorporating the Nova Corp, Fin Fang Foom, Knowhere, and even Adam Warlock. The thing that makes a Spider-Man so much fun is the actual mechanic of web-swinging or the carefully calibrated combat. What makes Guardians fun is the combination of all of these personalities and the way you can occasionally orchestrate the chaos into something intentional. Like many games, there’s a bit of repetition that kicks in before the ending, but the story’s so strong and the character work is so much fun that I’m okay with that. If you’re even slightly interested, this is well worth your time and attention.
Finally, there’s a new documentary about Julia Child opening today called Julia, and it’s another brick in the wall for busy documentarian Julie Cohen. I liked her film RBG quite a bit, and I thought My Name is Pauli Murray was a quiet mind-blower, a film about someone I’ve never heard of who deserves a much higher profile considering the lives they touched. With Julia, Cohen makes the case that the entire food-on-television industry we know today began with one unlikely woman, and I think she makes her case well. I remember Julia Child as background noise to my childhood, one of those celebrities I saw on TV but didn’t really understand. I know the broad strokes of her story, and I saw the Meryl Streep biopic, but this was the first time I truly got a sense of why she was so significant. It wasn’t just timing, although that was part of it. I think it was the sheer unlikeliness of her that made her so compelling. That voice, that towering physique… she was instantly arresting, and it almost didn’t matter what she was talking about. But once she did start talking, it became clear that she was able to break down this enormously complicated subject that America really didn’t understand, French cuisine, and explain it in a way that made it approachable and manageable. She changed American food, she changed American cooking, and she changed American television, and she seemed unaffected by all of it somehow. There’s a very meat-and-potatoes quality to Cohen’s work. She’s not trying to dazzle you. She just wants to lay her subject out and let them speak for themselves, and Julia feels like the definitive portrait of this fascinating figure.
I’m going to wrap it up, but before I go, let me address the media diary that I normally include in these Friday newsletters. I’ll get back to it now that I’m going to do Monday, Wednesday, and Friday updates, and I’ll start next week. I got really out of practice there for a while. It’s not the actual reading or watching, but the keeping track of it. I am, to be quite honest, a nervous wreck right now. There is a whole lot riding on the premiere on VOIR on Netflix on December 6, and I am having real trouble maintaining focus right now. It doesn’t help that the holidays seem to be bearing down like a freight train. I’ve got to continue to build the audience for both of these newsletters if I’m going to keep them going in 2022, and I’m not entirely sure how to do that.
For now, let me just say that if you love this newsletter, spread the word. Today’s a freebie, so if you’re not subscribed, you really should. It’s just $7 a month and it’s even less if you buy a whole year at once. Tell people about it on Twitter and Facebook. Send your favorite editions to people to read. I’ve got no support, no network, nobody pushing my work on a larger platform. It’s just me, and there are times it can be exhausting trying to spin all these plates by myself. You’re my best way of reaching new people, and hopefully my three-days-a-week schedule will give you more than ever to read and enjoy.
See you back here for a short schedule next week when I’ll have a dive into the new Buckaroo Banzai sequel and my review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie, Licorice Pizza. Then after the holiday, we’ll be back to Bond and we’ll have another edition of NOTHIN’ BUT STAR WARS before we get into the Christmas season!
As always, I appreciate your ongoing attention and support.