Monday, April 9, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Ghostbusters 2" (1989)

I've occasionally seen well-known movie critics reverse themselves -- almost invariably, giving a second positive review to a film they dissed the first time around. Never the other way around. Roger Ebert famously gave "Unforgiven" an indifferent review, then changed course shortly thereafter when an overwhelming preponderance of the critic corps lavished it with praise. He begged off that he was distracted by his upcoming marriage. A decade later, he went so far as to include it in "Great Movies," his compendium of reviews of masterpieces.

Personally, I have never seen a movie I deemed bad that I later changed my mind about enough to view it positively. More often, films I adored once upon a time diminish when seen years later with a different perspective. Frankly, I'm more than a mite suspicious of anyone who totally changes course when they find their negative opinion of a film leaves them all alone.

I will say, however, that "Ghostbusters 2" was much better than I remembered it. I saw it only once back when it came out in 1989, and watched it again while experiencing some down time (a nearly unrecognizable commodity these days) during a recent trip.

This isn't to say it's great, or even good. But it's a reasonably funny and entertaining movie that, if it existed on its own, would not be seen as the disaster it was generally viewed as at the time. It doomed any talk for a third movie, though that's perked up again lately, with Bill Murray insisting he won't be involved.

I think a couple of things made "2" seem like such a letdown. The first was the relative long interval between the first film in 1984 and the sequel. At least during the '80s, if a movie did very well the sequel almost always came out two years later, three max. Apparently there was some problem getting the cast to all come back with a screenplay they agreed upon, and that's reflected in the disjointed nature of "2."

The biggest reason, though, is what a huge act it had to follow. I really don't think it's possible to overpraise the original "Ghostbusters." Perhaps my views are colored by childhood memories, but for my money "Ghostbusters" is right up there with the all-time great film comedies -- "Some Like It Hot," "Singin' in the Rain," and so on. Other than being raucously funny, it tapped into scientific and psycho-babble neuroses that were flying around at the time. It essentially launched the genre of the big-budget action/comedy, and brought science fiction into the cinematic mainstream by poking fun at it.

Strangely, one of the things I remember most about "2" was the characters of Louis Tully, the Ghostbusters' nerdy attorney played by Rick Moranis, having a romance with their laconic secretary, Janine (Annie Potts). Like most teenage geeks, I was entranced by the idea of a woman throwing herself at a man with no reason to expect such attentions. Plus, their coupling was cute.

The script, by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, contains a few good zingers. The courtroom scene is one, where Tully addresses the judge in his opening comments and concludes with the patter, "and one time I got turned into a dog and they helped me." Director Ivan Reitman plays out the comic timing on that reaction exquisitely, cutting back to the judge looking utterly gobsmacked.

Another great throwaway line is where the Ghostbusters pop in on their ostensible leader, Peter Venkman (Murray), while he's having dinner at a fancy restaurant with erstwhile lady love Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver). They're covered in ghost goo and make quite a scene, until Venkman hushes them with the classic, "Guys, guys, you're scaring the straights!" This is perhaps one of the first Hollywood movies in which gay humor did not come at the expense of the homosexual community.

I also enjoyed Peter MacNicol's daffy Janosz, the curator at the art restoration museum where Dana is working. He talks in a flighty Eurotrash accent, but when pressed reveals that he's a native-born American.

So why doesn't he film work? Well, the lack of a really good bad guy doesn't help. The villain is Vigo, a long-dead Slavic slayer who is brought back to life when a giant painting of him is reanimated by the negative energy flowing in great churning rivers under the city of New York. He's kind of scary-looking, but just doesn't have a lot of personality.

I also missed the prickly peevishness of Walter Peck, the hostile city bureaucrat so memorably played by William Atherton in the original. Until Gozer arrives on Earth and starts wreaking havoc, Peck operated as the main adversary for the Ghostbusters. Kurt Fuller tries bravely to fill in as the mayor's newest jerk toady, but he just doesn't conjure up the sort of quotidian malevolence personified by Peck.

And of course, the story's finale is a virtual repeat of the one in the original, with the aggressive giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man replaced by the benevolent Statue of Liberty, brought to life by the boys and ridden to the rescue. One icon blown up to titan size smashing stuff in the Big Apple equals big comedy; the second go-round feels like a cynical, uninspired rehash.

Still, I have to give "Ghostbusters 2" points for exceeding expectations, or at least my wrongful recollection of it as a disastrously bad flick. Time may not have totally changed my mind, but it did mellow out my hostility.

2.5 stars out of four

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