Lawrence Toppman

Ghostbusting ladies shine in the slimelight

When Paul Feig announced he was directing an all-female version of “Ghostbusters,” I immediately thought of ways it could go wrong:

It could overemphasize crazy action sequences and special effects (“Ghostblasters”).

It could rely too much on vulgar, “we’re just like the guys”-style humor (“Gutbusters”).

It could use sex as a selling point to get a male audience interested in a female-dominated cast (“Ghostbustiers”).

But in the event, it doesn’t go too far in any of these directions. Yes, the final 20 minutes descend into big-budget overkill. (That happened in the original, as I recall.) But until then, this good-humored bonding story emphasizes the actresses’ gifts, rather than their gender.

Abby and Erin (Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig) have shared an interest in paranormal activity since high school, and Abby recruits brilliantly crazy engineer Jillian (Kate McKinnon) to develop equipment that destroys or captures ghosts. When amateur New York historian Patty (Leslie Jones) finds them a malevolent spirit, she joins the squad.

Some viewers have complained that all the male characters are doltish – notably Chris Hemsworth as their dim receptionist – unpleasant or wicked. But except for the main quartet, the few women in the story aren’t smart or likable either. And the low-key villain’s a novelty: Genius janitor Rowan (Neil Casey), downtrodden all his life, has built a machine in an abandoned room of his hotel that will release thousands of angry spirits into the New York atmosphere.

Feig wrote this script with Katie Dippold, the sole credited writer on his lukewarm comedy “The Heat.” (Dippold turns up here as a rental agent.) Though Feig has directed McCarthy in his last four features, he scrupulously divides screen time among the leads, who all bring something different to the party: McCarthy has drive, Wiig a gleeful sense of discovery, McKinnon zaniness and Jones cheerful common sense.

Feig tips his hat to the 1984 original with cameos not only for the three surviving ’busters – Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Bill Murray – but with small roles for Annie Potts and Sigourney Weaver. The late Harold Ramis gets a grinning bust on a pedestal outside Erin’s Columbia University door.

Composer Theodore Shapiro, who shows up briefly as a keyboard player, riffs on the first Oscar-nominated title song by Ray Parker Jr. and score by Elmer Bernstein. Old friends such as the Fat Green Slimer (now accompanied by Mrs. Fat Green Slimer) show up, though the scene where he steals the Ghostbusters’ car becomes part of the climactic overkill.

Not-so-gentle nudges to our memories pop up constantly. Yet the movie doesn’t capitalize cheaply on nostalgia; the women have different approaches from the men, and nobody copies Murray’s cynicism or Aykroyd’s bullheadedness. We can be grateful that, for once, a remake wasn’t Ghostbungled.

Toppman: 704-358-5232


Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth.

Director: Paul Feig.

Length: 116 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (supernatural action and some crude humor).