In an homage to the original Ghostbusters, the fourth black member of the team is clumsily shoe-horned in, though as that member, Leslie Jones makes more of an impression than poor Winston Zeddemore. Introduced around the 45-minute mark, Jones plays Patty Tolan, a subway worker who witnesses some supernatural activity in the tunnels. She brings this to the team, now operating out of a Chinese restaurant and staffed by dim-witted beefcake secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), and accompanies them to the site. Her persistence, and more importantly her ability to get ahold of a car, wears down the group and she joins up. Together, they investigate the increased ghost activity in the city, tracking the source back to mad scientist type Rowan North (Norm Casey), the kind of resentful schlub who might think an all-female reimagining of his favorite movie 'raped his childhood.'
The casting of Casey, who can say in a mirror that the bullied will now become the bully and have the viewer agree that yes, this character was probably bullied throughout his life, is one of several meta shots that Feig and writer Katie Dippold take at the furor surrounding the film. Every time Abby posts her ghost-busting videos online, the comments are noted to be less about the monumental evidence for the supernatural and more about how fat Abby looks in her jumpsuit. The device they use to detect ghostly presences looks oddly like a vagina, a little salt in the wound for the toy-collecting set. Kevin isn't an endearing kind of dumb, like Andy Dwyer in Parks and Rec (a show Dippold worked on), but an entitled kind where he thinks he's smart and everyone else is stupid. Ghostbusters is aware of the discussion surrounding it, but the jokes and comments don't rise above a Family-Guy-esque level of pure recognition, like the laugh only comes from putting the actual and the fictional together.
The meta aspect doesn't add much, and in concert, the rest of the humor in Ghostbusters falls flat as well. This is baffling for this cast and this crew, especially when they work together. Feig's Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy have all been funny films, but Ghostbusters tries mightily to earn chuckles. The level of gross-out humor is wildly out of proportion to what the characters, a series of PhD holders, would believably find funny. More low-level recognition is rubbed in the viewer's face in the form of franchise service, as every physical marker of the original must be serviced lest an already-angry fandom go apoplectic. The logo, the firehouse, the ambulance, and Slimer all make appearances, as do each of the three surviving cast members in painful cameos. The script for Ghostbusters feels workshopped and noted to death, with the easiest and laziest choice made time after time.
This being a big summer blockbuster with a bloated 9-figure budget, the action and effects must be made to match. Feig, an established comedy director, made his bones as a credible action director in Spy, but here, the action is as dead as the jokes. He makes hacky choices, like having a ghost hit by a subway car and then replaying it several times from different angles. The 3D effects, so often blatant in blockbusters, are strangling here, with laser streams even entering the letterboxing (this could be a failure of the DVD on which I watched the film, and if so, apologies). The big climactic fight is a mess of CGI, with Holtzmann breaking out a cache of ghost-murdering weapons because... it's toyetic and good for cross-promotion? Feig made Spy one year earlier. Not since Tom McCarthy made The Cobbler and Spotlight in a 12-month period has there been such a discrepancy between a director's output.
What few laughs exist are solely derived from the performances of the core cast. Wiig's over-excitement is a pleasant contrast to her pre-Ghostbuster wardrobe of turtlenecks and pantsuits, McCarthy makes delightfully weird physical choices, and Jones, in her first big cinematic role, gets one of her signature, saying-what-I'm-seeing commentaries in what must have been an ad-libbed scene. McKinnon is trying the hardest, willing laughs out of the viewer. Her Holtzmann is just weird, dancing for no reason and turning her repair sessions into a Stomp-esque routine. She is mugging her face off, but she's such a great mugger, that some of her rubber-faced asides pierce my mug-skepticism and find some jovial paydirt.
As much effort as the cast is putting into Ghostbusters, there's only so much they can do. They all deserve better, but Feig and Dippold have dug them too deep a hole. There's a creeping sense while watching Ghostbusters that so much time and energy in the public square has been wasted on something so otherwise trivial and frivolous, not unlike the experience of watching The Interview in 2014. At least that film was lampooning a subject that needed lampooning. The whole of Ghostbusters, present and past, is just about its title. Who cares who's playing the titular group, especially when the final product is so lackluster? D+