Sunday, March 2, 2014

Movie Review: Ghostbusters

Directed by Ivan Reitman. 1984.

If George Lucas' Star Wars prequels are good for nothing else, they demonstrate that you can spend the span of three movies without telling us anything interesting about characters or making us care about or understand them in nearly any way. Among the many virtues of Ghostbusters is that its script shows how to explain everything about both characters and relationships in about ten minutes. In that tiny space of time, we not only meet our trio of paranormal investigators, but befriend them. 

First we find Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), and discover he's not the greatest professor or the most serious scientist, that he's a ladies man, and that, willing to stretch the truth, Pete's a born salesman. Then we meet Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd), an intimate as well as colleague of Peter, who trusts him to permit his physical gags which are right out of a Marx Brothers routine. Ray has a childlike love for science and a plucky enthusiasm which crosses over into heroism. He's the heart of the soon-to-be Ghostbusters. Finally, we meet the brains, Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). He's a cloistered nerd, keeping a physician's distance from things and interacting with the world via tools and gadgets. Egon is also close to Peter, who demonstrates his kinship with Egon by rewarding his nerd pal with a candy bar, but not before first teasing him with it. Friends and scientists, the salesman, the genius, and the boy wonder. Not bad for ten minutes' characterization. 

Even the last moments of the introduction, though, characterize. The difference is that this scene characterizes the whole movie. When the trio corners its ghostly prey in the basement of the New York Public Library, the ghoul lashes out and the investigators flee out onto Fifth Avenue. The sight is pretty ghastly, with a toothy luminescent beast bursting from the body of a little old librarian, but the music which simultaneously erupts is a jaunty ditty on the piano. The message is clear but subtle: we'll be busting ghosts, but this is going to be fun. 

Now while the first scene establishes the characters, the second scene ignites the plot. Getting kicked out of their cushy, well-funded Columbia University digs establishes the guys as underdogs and forces them out into the world to do something.  

The script wisely delays the entry of the fourth Ghostbuster, Winston Zedmore (Ernie Hudson) until the team is officially in business, a delay which has several substantial benefits for the script. First, it de-clutters the opening. Introducing four characters probably would have been too much. Second, the delay allows us to play the role of straight-man, identifying with the trio of friends. Had we met Winston earlier, his sober character would have competed with us for acceptance into the group dynamic. Instead we feel so close to the guys after the introduction that when they go into business, we share their risk and thrill. Third, Winston's arrival gives us a sense of success because the Ghostbusters are expanding. Lastly, he gives the group another straight-man to whom they can explain their paranormal shenanigans. 

Instead of the fourth Ghostbuster, then, we meet their wheels and pad, the now iconic ambulance and firehouse, most memorable for their dilapidation and Ray's affection for their vintage cool. Whereas their first customer, the single cellist and unwilling object of Venkman's libido, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), gets the plot going, it's their first emergency that gets the movie rolling. The call comes in and the team flies out, sirens blazing, to a hotel which in busting they promptly trash. There they vanquish the ravenous green Slimer and emerge The Ghostbusters.

We could summarize the plot, which holds about as much water as can a story involving a shape-shifting Sumerian god destroying the world from a Manhattan rooftop, but as novel as ghost busting, proton packs, and ghost traps are, we watch for the characters. It's simply a pleasure to watch the chemistry between these guys, goofing around and playing off each other's virtues and vices as they try to succeed against all odds. Each by himself is entertaining to watch, but it's a delight to see Pete admonish Egon's relentless calculating, Ray explain in detail science that goes right over Pete's head, and Winston look on flabbergasted at the bunch. Too many movies to count throw out a few vague characterizations at the beginning only to follow them up with bupkis, but the gang of Ghostbusters stays Pete, Ray, and Egon throughout. Ghostbusters never drops its characters and a few scenes demonstrate the consistency.

Take that scene when the Ghostbusters are called into action. The alarm sounds and in response, childlike Ray flies to the fire pole, Peter grabs his food so he can go down with it, and Egon buttons his jacket. When they enter the hotel, Peter blurts out, "Has anybody seen a ghost?", Ray looks at Peter's boorishness in shock, and Egon looks at a woman, amazed that she's actually look at him. Looking for the ghost, Egon whips out his detector, Ray jumps right in guns blazing, and playboy Peter stoops to getting slimed. After they've bested the beast, the Ghostbusters emerge victorious: Ray is full of piss and vinegar, explaining their feat, while Pete whips out the invoice pad and Egon gestures to him how much to charge.

At last with all the pieces in place–characters, equipment, and ghosts–we get one the most satisfying montages in movie history and the introduction of an unexpected character: New York City

Now if there's every a movie which knows how to hit its beats, it's Ghostbusters. Each scene knows what it's about and so do we. You can easily characterize each scene so far:
  1. character introduction x3 & establish group dynamic
  2. spark the adventure
  3. building the Ghostbusters
  4. prepare the main plot
  5. first fight: Ghostbusters are born
  6. amplification via montage
The next step, naturally, is to throw a monkey wrench into the smoothly turning wheels. How? Dana is violently kidnapped by the main baddie and turned into the gateway to Earth from the supernatural plane while her neighbor is turned into a dog and the key to the gateway. Got that? To amplify the sense of complication and variety, the teams splits up: Peter goes out with Dana, Egon crunches data at headquarters, and Ray and Winston are out on the town. Slowly they piece together the mystery of the Gatekeeper, the Key Master, and the corner apartment at spook central. 

Finally, to escalate us into finale territory–hit those beats!–EPA prick Walter Peck accidentally releases all of the Ghostbusters' captured nasties, setting the stage for the arrival of Gozer and the Day of Judgment. To top it off, the Ghostbusters are arrested. Again, when most movies would forego characters and details to focus on plot, Ghostbusters keeps the characters, well, in character. When the team is called up by a mayor desperate to stop Manhattan from falling into chaos, Ray and Egon give the science, Winston appeals to him as an everyman, and Peter reminds the mayor how wise it would be to save millions of registered voters. 

Of course Ghostbusters isn't all plot and characters. There's plenty of room for snappy dialogue and gags that are fun in themselves. The most famous and hilarious is a running gag in which Dana's hapless neighbor, played by a brilliantly spastic and oblivious Rick Moranis, gets locked out of his apartment again and again. Ghostbusters isn't all writing either, though, and its special effects hold up today, in particular the matte paintings that capture NYC to a tee. In a day of facile digital effects, it's satisfying to see so many practical ones from matte paintings to scale models, character miniatures, and real rocks, fire, and goo. 

It's also refreshing to see a movie whose rough edges weren't burnished for political correctness and cheap shots. There's plenty of smoking and liberal use of shit in conversation and exclamation. There are even references to religion, four of them, without any ironic or sarcastic twists. Likewise, can you imagine today a movie in which the bad guy is from the EPA and the good guys are businessmen? What about one in which the good guys not only rake in the dough, but save the day, and without any sly twists about the evils of money and entrepreneurship? Speaking of which, the product placement is pretty subtle. Producers and directors can get obnoxious with placement, and this movie has Coke cans floating around and such, but they're pretty inconspicuous. Ghostbusters hasn't been airbrushed for maximum marketability and loaded with cheap ads. Yes, it spawned a huge line of toys and cartoons, and there are even shirts and mugs worked into the movie, but they make sense in context and the film maintains its authenticity. 

Ghostbusters remains about the characters, though, and the final conversation in which the guys plot to overthrow Gozer the Destructor is as authentic as their first in which they launched their paranormal eliminating business: Ray is prepared to go down fighting, Peter is cracking jokes, Egon's calculating the science, and Winston thinks this job doesn't pay enough. When the boys say goodbye before they cross the streams and hope to stop Gozer, we realize that we'd miss them. We've befriended these guys, and when they wake up after the blast and Peter has the girl, Ray's his adventure, and Egon his science, we share in the victory. When they drive off in Ecto I with the uncharacteristically grateful citizens of NYC running behind, we agree with Winston who gets the movie's last line: I love this town! Yep, and we love the Ghostbusters too.

No comments:

Post a Comment