Ghostbusters: A blockbuster movie that’s not a bust (1984)
Some people have trouble believing in ghosts. Not me.
What I’ve always had trouble believing in at least, since I took this job — are smash summer comedies. Like last year’s “Trading Places” and “Mr. Mom,” two supposed sure-fire crack-me-ups that had trouble getting me to crack a smile. But mine was obviously a minority opinion since they were both among the top-grossing films of 1983.
So it was with some fear and a certain amount of loathing that I approached this summer’s first laff-riot candidate: “Ghostbusters.” With a cast headed by “Saturday Night Live” alumni Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, and a script by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (who helped script “Animal House”), “Ghostbusters” had blockbuster written all over it. I figured, rather peevishly, I’d end up rooting for the ghosts, not the busters.
I was wrong. “Ghostbusters” is pretty much gangbusters. Admittedly, it does suffer from the common comedy malady, momentum letdown, meaning you start glancing at your watch about 15 minutes too soon. But generally, there’s enough blithe spirit here for two movies. (However, as Pauline Kael would say, this is not a suggestion.)
In brief, “Ghostbusters” is about the paranormal pursued by the abnormal. Three “scientists” (Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis) have their cushy university grant grabbed away from them and are forced to go into business for themselves as professional investigators and eliminators of paranormal phenomena. In other words, they get ghosts. As they say, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.
At first, the calls trickle in and the spooks are sparse. Then they exterminate in a posh New York hotel, and business takes off. Before long, our Ghostbusters have achieved those twin pinnacles of American celebrity: A Time magazine cover and a National Enquirer [Globe] diet.
But not every case is a success story. One of their first clients is classical musician Sigourney Weaver, who lives in the corner penthouse of an Upper West Side apartment building” that’s a dead ringer for the one time Rosemary had her baby. Miss Weaver comes home one night, opens her refrigerator and finds herself staring at outtakes from “Atlantis, The Lost Continent” (you know, bullheaded gods and a fire-belching temple of dum-de-dum-dum).
She assumes this isn’t a hallucination induced by the smell of leftover Chinese food, and calls the Ghostbusters. What she gets is an instantly smitten Murray who reminds her less of a scientist than a game-show host.
Murray is game, all right (his innuendoes to the luscious Miss Weaver are gamier), but he can’t spot any spooks. Meanwhile, up on the roof, directly above her apartment, there’s something funny going on with a pair of ominous-looking stone gargoyles
“Ghostbusters” is a canny blend of funny and frightening, rather like the old Saturday morning TV classic “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Like its protagonists, it takes its specters seriously. Or rather, just seriously enough. These spooks aren’t always spectacular (one of the ghosts, an incarnation of a Sumerian god, looks like Nadia Comaneci dressed up like a Rockette). but when the spirit moves them they can be downright dangerous. And when Miss Weaver is possessed by that same Sumerian spirit, she’s capable of a deep-throated menace in a league with little Linda Blair.
Of course, it’s difficult to stay too wary of her when Murray’s making wisecracks and her also-possessed neighbor, Rick Moranis. is running around babbling about the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster, like some Dungeons and Dragons tan possessed by Freud.
The people involved in “Ghostbusters” have remembered the golden rule of comedy — internal credibly. It’s like the classic cliffhanging scene in Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.” Once you accept that that cabin is teetering impossibly on the edge of an icy cliff, then all the crazy stuff that goes on inside the cabin — Chaplin and a fellow gold-digger running in circles as the floor slip-slides away beneath them — is hilarious.
ln “Ghostbusters,” poltergeists are a fact of life. They toss books around the stacks of the New York Public Library and wait up from the sewers and subways with appalling mulls. Eventually, the EPA shows up and arrests our heroes for poltergeist pollution.
You see, the way they get rid of captured ectoplasm is to pulverize the poltergeist in a thingy that looks a lot like a drive-in banker. In fact, their entire arsenal of apparition-snaring apparatus is pretty funny. Ramis carries around a ghost-detector that resembles a fancy version of one of those fishing gizmos they sell on Channel 17 between midnight and 4 am. All three wear nuclear-powered backpacks that would look right at home on an Orkin man.
However, the most hilarious “tool” on hand is Bill Murray. Hands down. He is, essentially, the movie’s key ingredient. Without him, I’m afraid the weak spots would be too weak.
I always liked Murray on the old “Saturday Night Live.” I preferred Aykroyd or John Belushi or Gilda Radner. Murray was certainly slightly funnier than Jane Curtin and Chevy Chase, and a whole lot funnier than Laraine Newman or Garrett Morris.
But when he made the inevitable pilgrimage to motion pictures. I was put off by his performances in movies like “Meatballs” and “Stripes” and “Where The Buffalo Roam.” He seemed typecast as a kind of whacked-out goofball who did wild-and-crazy things without letting his deadpan cool go off the deep end.
Then he made “Tootsie,” in which he played Dustin Hoffman’s roommate. He was still the snide observer, one step removed from the action, but here it worked. That’s because, unlike “Meatballs,” et al., he wasn’t at the center of all the comic chaos. The spotlight was on Hoffman, with Murray doing superb support work. His sense of slight-remove made sense when the burden of keeping the plot spinning was dispensed with.
In “Ghostbusters,” Murray is back in the center, but he shares the stage with Aykroyd and Ramis. Aykroyd gets to do the manic/innocent stuff — a little like Larry in the Three Stooges — that keeps things churning, and Ramis just hangs around wishing he could be as memorably funny on the screen as he is on the page. Together, they act as a balance for Murray, who gets laughs with the most throw-away lines.
There’s enough neo-Groucho rationality in his performance to make me rethink my theories of reincarnation. He has a way with a leer and a line that the dear departed Margaret Dumont — the butt of more Marx leers and lines than any other actress, alive or dead — would no doubt approve. If they have VCRs in Movie Star Heaven, I hope she and Groucho settle in with a tape of “Ghostbusters.”