The Finally Screenings: I Just Watched Ghostbusters For the First Time
I have a terrible secret, one that draws fire from my comedian and non-comedian friends and renders well-delivered quotes and references moot. It was both a symptom and a cause of my cultural cluelessness as a kid and many comedic deficiencies I have now. My secret is this:
I have never seen Wayne’s World.
Or Beetlejuice. Or National Lampoon’s Vacation, or Caddyshack, or Animal House. In fact, there is an embarrassingly long list of classic comedy movies of which I’ve never seen a frame, and it seems like every time I cross one off the list, another two appear.
It’s a dreadful burden.
But as I was watching Ghostbusters for the first time last week, I realized that the objectivity these late-in-life viewings afford me is fascinating. Because Ghostbusters, for most of my friends – especially those in comedy – is treated with the same unfailingly loyal, child-like reverence I reserve for the Star Wars trilogy. In the case of Ghostbusters, I can say it’s well-deserved, but Blazing Saddles? Beverly Hills Cop? Dumb and Dumber? I don’t know. But I mean to find out.
So in this column I’ll take a classic comedy that I’ve never seen, view it with fresh eyes, and try to evaluate its worth as a film and its place, deserving or not, in the comedic zeitgeist of an entire generation (or three) of comedy performers, writers, and your socially inept friend who loves to shriek movie quotes at the most vaguely opportune times.
So, Ghostbusters. I should mention that I have technically seen this movie, but not since the fall of the Soviet Union, when my review would probably have been written in D’Nealian, so I figured it was time. It’s considered by many to be the seminal comedy film of the 1980s. But is it funny to someone with no loyalty to it? In a word: definitely.
Ghostbusters holds up better than most comedies of its era – the jokes aren’t dated or obvious, and the characters are fully-realized and enigmatic at the same time. The jokes and characters are easy-going and funny in a proto-Apatow, cast-all-your-friends sort of way – you just get the impression everyone involved was having a great time. And, unlike almost every one of its contemporaries, it’s almost devoid of quotable lines; the jokes aren’t even jokes so much as funny observations, casual non-sequiturs and deadpan deliveries – which puts Ghostbusters in stark contrast to its contemporaries with their “Great Scott”s and “Inconceivable”s.
At its heart, that’s what’s both satisfying and bewildering to me about Ghostbusters: it succeeds on its own merits without being anything like the other heavy-hitters of 80s comedies. Back to the Future, for example, made just one year later, is in many ways the polar opposite of a film like Ghostbusters, and in many ways its fraternal twin – BttF stands on the shoulders of its special effects, while Ghostbusters dismisses them like an ironic fashion statement. BttF loves its premise so much that everything is spelled out; Ghostbusters relishes in its characters and plot points being obscure, and nothing is explained or examined at all if it isn’t convenient. (It occurred to me that the line “wait a minute, Doc… are you telling me that this sucker is NUCLEAR?!” could just as easily refer to a proton pack as to a flux capacitor, but it wouldn’t be caught dead in the everything-is-whatever world of Ghostbusters.)
Even Winston, whose only reason for being a character at all is to play the outsider – says barely a thing about how bizarre it is that he’s just taken a job lassoing poltergeists. Ghostbusters exposes – and revels in – the silliness of the big concepts of blockbuster ‘80s comedies without being cynical, lazy or insulting. It seems like a movie from a different, alternate reality. A reality in which Doc Brown and Ferris and Tootsie have no place, but Slimer and Zuul are no big deal.
Is it really out of place, though? There’s something that’s so perfectly ‘80s about Ghostbusters – its portrayal of pre-Guiliani NYC is silly and gritty without being touristy or caricatured. Peter Venkman’s ironic, borderline antisocial detachment seems like an honest and timely counterpoint to the structured austerity of Reagan-era American identity and the more sympathetic direction of Rob Reiner and John Hughes.
Which brings me to the direction. There are many scenes in this film that don’t play by blockbuster rules: scenes with less dialogue than you’d expect, scenes that begin and end at strange places. And then there are scenes that play more like a student film: contextless tidbits clearly part of larger scenes that have been cut (case in point: ghost blowjob), scenes that seem overlong or underfunny (the Slimer sequence, now that the novelty of the special effects has faded, is a little of both).
On top of that is the decidedly non-80s refusal to justify any of it. Venkman, for example, makes no apologies for his actions, and never demands or even implies that we should be rooting for him. We do, though, because we like Venkman. Somehow. In spite of the film’s blatant disdain for the sentimentality that defines other ‘80s comedies, Ghostbusters succeeds even more on its assumption – and gentle insistence – that these characters are good guys, good friends, and that Ivan Reitman doesn’t need to talk about it for us to get it. And in a decade where Fred Savage interrupts a story to call out its problems, Matthew Broderick explains the repercussions of the previous scene directly to camera, and Michael J. Fox breathlessly distills every plot point just to make sure he gets it, the take-it-or-leave it nature of Ghostbusters must have been really refreshing at the time. And it still is today.
Which is why I think Ghostbusters still stands up: for all the praise it’s received, not many films have succeeded – or even attempted – to recreate what makes Ghostbusters so special. I don’t imagine that a casually absurd, high-concept big-budget film is the most appealing investment for executive producers. There are a few good, recent films that come to mind – Iron Man, Shaun of the Dead, Pineapple Express – which similarly inject a casual comedic sensibility into a high-stakes premise, but many of those movies are plagued by their obligations to their genres and the style disconnect between the looser dialogue scenes and the necessarily tighter action and exposition scenes. Somehow Ghostbusters still does it better than most. Fortunately for us, as the movie industry begins to swell once again with unique comedic voices, and audiences get ready for comedies that don’t just take place in someone’s living room, it’s the kind of film I think we’ll be seeing more of soon. Fingers (not streams) crossed.