Crossing The Streams
Ghostbusters shouldn’t have worked. To be sure, it’s become a beloved film, but it’s a beloved film almost in spite of itself. Dan Aykroyd’s original script was reportedly several hundred pages, involving pandimensional travel and bonkers science fiction concepts. Had it been shot, it would have cost over $200 million — in 1980s money.
Ivan Reitman got involved next, convincing Aykroyd that a rewrite was necessary and that the script required a more grounded approach. The plan was for Aykroyd to star alongside John Belushi and Eddie Murphy, and as the director of Meatballs and Stripes, Reitman seemed the logical choice. He met with Frank Price, the head of Columbia Pictures. Price liked the concept, yet his concern was that comedies had a ceiling of profitability. The concern was waved away, and Reitman assured him he could make the entire film, including expensive special effects, for $25-30 million.* Price agreed, as long as Reitman could make a June 1984 release date. They had thirteen months to make the film. They didn’t have a completed script, a start date, or an effects company.
This was, of course, after John Belushi died, which required more rewriting. Bill Murray tentatively agreed to star.** and once filming began, he promptly ignored the script and ad-libbed the majority of his dialogue. There were concerns that, after Alien, Sigourney Weaver was simply too serious to even appear in a movie like this. Reitman had so little time to complete the film that some of the effects were simply unfinished.
June 1984 arrived, and Columbia had a movie that looked like it was held together with masking tape. They had a horror-comedy powered by the deeply strange worldview of Dan Aykroyd and the deeply laid-back smarm of Bill Murray. It made nearly $300 million, becoming the top-grossing comedy of the 1980s. Ghostbusters became iconic. A sequel followed, which was not very good. A remake followed that, which was fun, flawed, and unfairly maligned. Now there’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a film overflowing with fan service and heart.
When things begin, there’s bad news and there’s worse news. The bad news is that Callie (Carrie Coon) is behind on the rent again. So far behind that she’s being evicted, but at least her landlord is letting her pack up before he changes the locks. She’s not thrilled about leaving. Her teenaged son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) is even less happy since he just wants a little stability in a very unstable life. We get the sense that Trevor’s sister Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) can handle some upheaval. She’s preternaturally intelligent, and middle school is about as much of a challenge to her as tying her shoes.
The worse news is that Callie’s father has died. I take that back, as he was mostly a nonentity in her life. The worse news was that he did not leave Callie controlling interest in Apple, a functional time machine, or something equally awesome. Instead, he left her a tumbledown old house in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a town that’s not in the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there.
They have no other choice, so they settle into the house owned by the man the locals called “the dirt farmer.” For Callie, she’ll sift through the detritus of her father’s life and try to figure out a way forward. For Trevor, he’ll jump at the chance to get a job at the local fast-food joint, and pine over his crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), a brainy girl looking for direction.
And Phoebe? She’s got Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd), her summer school teacher who has an interest in the mysterious earthquakes that have been hitting the town. She’s also got Podcast (Logan Kim), a fellow student whose dweebiness meshes perfectly with her nerdiness. Most importantly, Phoebe has the chance to learn about her grandfather, a guy involved in something very strange thirty years ago. Is there a connection between his New York activities and the unexplained seismic activity? Is something ancient and evil lurking in Stillwater? Of course there is, but wouldn’t it be amazing if there weren’t?
The most important aspect of filmmaking is perspective. Telling a story isn’t really the important part. Who’s telling it and why is the meat of the matter. Next to the people who actually made it, there’s no human being closer to Ghostbusters than Jason Reitman. His dad Ivan directed the first film and the second film, and gave him a small role to boot.*** The franchise is entwined with who he is, so I suppose it’s not surprising that he would direct Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
While his father made a joyfully snide film held together by staples, Jason Reitman’s movie feels like two movies at odds with each other. The first movie has a heavy-handed reverence for the past, where the camera lingers lovingly on neutrona wands and ghost traps. A great deal of time is spent looking at things, considering their meaning, and bathing them in a warm glow of nostalgia. On balance, a little nostalgia can be nice, and Reitman offers magic hour shots of the Ecto-One hurtling through cornfields that are just gorgeous. Yet it’s awfully weird to me to be this reverent and to treat a franchise this shaggy with the reverence associated with the Shroud of Turin. Were he a real person, Peter Venkman would immediately puncture all of this with well-timed snark.
The second is a hangout movie, and that’s where it feels of a piece with the original film. For long stretches, the film is content to put the plot aside and let us watch the characters spend time with each other. I liked that. It has a relaxed vibe to it that appeals to me, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the best parts of the OG Ghostbusters have nothing to do with supernatural phenomena. It’s Sigourney Weaver rolling her eyes at Bill Murray’s salesman charm, and the arcane terminology joyfully volleyed between Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd. When Afterlife simply engages with the characters instead of pummeling us with nostalgia, we’re left with a pretty good adventure movie.
The screenplay by Reitman and Gil Kenan is an uneasy blend of relaxed comedy, a small pinch of horror, and a metric ton of fan service. Nearly every significant line, set piece, or detail of the original Ghostbusters is referenced. Sometimes it’s subtle, such as a tall and impossibly neat stack of books, but most of the time it’s thuddingly obvious. I get that, for Reitman, this franchise is wrapped up with his feelings about his father. It’s rather like someone showing you a beloved photo album where you don’t know any of the people in the pictures. For the most part, the characterizations are solid and the plot is pretty good, but too often the script gazes reverently into the past when it should be sprinting toward the future.
And yet, lest you think I’m being Captain Grumpypants, this screenplay has a big beating heart. It’s there in general toward the Ghostbusters franchise, the goodwill it’s built up over time. It’s there specifically toward the one man tragically absent from this installment, Harold Ramis. If Venkman was the mouth and Stantz was the heart of the team, Ramis’ Egon Spengler was the fantastically odd brain. I have no idea what kind of relationship Jason Reitman had with Ramis, if any. Whatever it was, Reitman clearly held him in high regard, and that affection comes through loud and clear in this screenplay.
If there’s one thing you can count on regarding Reitman, it’s that he’s always had a knack for guiding his actors to strong performances. This film is no exception, and I enjoyed the exhausted sarcasm of Carrie Coon, and the low-key silliness of Paul Rudd. Finn Wolfhard does nice work, he just doesn’t have a heck of a lot to work with. As Trevor, he’s a nice enough teen who has a crush on one of the townies, and…that’s pretty much it. If there’s anyone in the cast who walks away with the movie, it’s Mckenna Grace as Phoebe. She leans into the deep strangeness of her character in a very particular way. A lesser performance would show us that Phoebe just wants friends and just wants to be accepted. Grace shows us a girl who’s perfectly comfortable with who she is and who doesn’t give a damn if the world catches up or not. Instead, she’s surrounded by the remains of her grandfather’s life, and despite what her mother says, she feels a strong connection to him and thinks there’s more to him than simply a janky old dirt farm.
I’ll be interested to see how Ghostbusters: Afterlife hits people in their teens. If you put aside the nostalgia (which ain’t easy), you still have a relatively fun and warm adventure designed to give viewers a good time. Will the fan service send younger folks back to the original film? I hope not, because as good as it is, it certainly doesn’t need more reverence. Instead, with luck, someone out there is going to have a crazypants idea. I hope they’ll channel the anarchic, what-the-hell-let’s-give-it-a-try ethos of the first film and use it to create something new. We don’t necessarily need more Ghostbusters. We could absolutely use something inspired by it.
*The story goes that Reitman made up that number on the spot, figuring that Ghostbusters would cost three times the amount of Stripes.
**Chevy Chase was considered for the role of Venkman, while Christopher Walken was considered for Egon.
***Jason Reitman is the annoying kid at the birthday party in Ghostbusters II.