Returning to Bill Murray’s Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters 1Attaching a possessive to a movie title is almost always questionable, as there tend to be a great number of creative forces behind the finished work. Even auteurists acknowledge that the concept of a single unifying genius has its shortcomings. Still, examining a film for the overriding influence of one of its creators can make for a useful critical lens. That person needn’t be the director, either. Comedies are often shaped by their stars more than anyone else. Ghostbusters (1984), in no uncertain terms, belongs to Bill Murray. It was the brainchild of Dan Aykroyd, who along with Harold Ramis created the script and acted in the movie. Considering Aykroyd’s well-known personal beliefs, looking at the film from his perspective is another option, albeit in my opinion a much less amusing one. But Murray’s very aloofness, his apparent lackadaisical approach to the material, may in fact be central to the film’s popularity and the influence it’s exerted on later blockbuster films.

Murray’s Dr. Peter Venkman (PhD), first of all, is a creep. Introduced in a well-choreographed and very funny scene that nevertheless is about Venkman trying to get in bed with a student, he calls himself a scientist without ever displaying real interest in science. His ulterior motives are always clear, and Murray’s charm makes them passable. Additionally, this aspect of the character leads to the only hint of internal conflict in the lighthearted film, as the woman of Venkman’s dreams, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), becomes possessed by the main villain. Strictly speaking, this wrinkle is unnecessary. The film clearly establishes that the Sumerian god Gozer is an apocalyptic threat worthy of the Ghostbusters’ attention. On paper, the gestures toward romantic comedy are half-hearted at best. Murray, despite not getting the full redemption arc Ramis would fashion for him in Groundhog Day, makes something of it.

Ghostbusters 2The essential scene has nothing to do with ghosts. Stick with me here. Venkman meets Dana, an accomplished cellist, in the plaza outside Lincoln Center. Taking the time to fake an interest in her work is just about the most sincere thing he does in the whole movie, if you can untangle that. His persistence shows signs of being successful, which is obligatory for a comedy of this kind, particularly considering the lack of creative input from women. Also, there’s a funny shot of a stuck-up musician applying nasal spray. Regardless, the scene’s bookends are what stand out. They are very strange, coming in the middle of a movie so focused on jokes and special effects. The focus, however brief, on a movie star simply doing things, attracting our attention through nonverbal personality alone, seems a relic of a lost Hollywood age. First, Venkman makes his entrance with a funny little skipping walk. I first saw this quick shot in an advertisement at the beginning of some video or other. Whether it was for a “family films” collection, or just a bunch of Columbia movies, I don’t recall, but the image stuck with me despite its generic, ghost-free quality. The scene ends with a shot of the whole plaza, as Venkman mimics the twirl of a roller skater. This whimsically romantic moment really does feel like it belongs in a different movie, but the innocent delight of it adds something to the next scene Murray and Weaver share. Ghostbusters doesn’t work at all if the audience doesn’t find a way to like Venkman, and these little quirks have an outsize impact.

Ghostbusters 3As a member of the Ghostbusters, Venkman is every bit as dubious a figure as he is with women. He wants to help his friends, Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Ramis), but he also teases them for their passion. Venkman is the audience surrogate — “Ghosts are freaky! Ectoplasm is gross! I don’t know anything about these metaphysical quandaries, I’m just trying to get ahead!” This is a fine function for the character to serve, but Aykroyd and Ramis cede the floor to Murray and his scenery-chewing at every opportunity. Their own characters — the zealot and the nerd, respectively — are undeveloped. They don’t get many chances to bounce off of Murray and make true comedic alchemy. The shining counterexample is the first “crossing the streams” discussion. Even that, I would argue, works best as a Ramis monologue. Murray’s setup is actually pretty weak. (“I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing”?)

Ghostbusters was far from the first fantasy-horror-comedy to be made in Hollywood. Bob Hope and Abbott & Costello were some of the crucial forebears. But the combination of attitude and budget was new, and as American culture more broadly has entered a more cynical age, it still hasn’t gone out of style. A recent viewing of Men in Black revealed how much that film owed to this one, its heroes cracking wise opposite elaborate, grotesque special effects. Peter Venkman’s descendants include Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, not to mention Robert Downey Jr.’s chronically flip Tony Stark. In fact, let’s just lump all the “lighter” Marvel movies in there. Ghostbusters slipped itself right into the blockbuster age, and I think it lost more than it gained in the bargain. For all the jokes that are still funny, I find both Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshallow Man far too clunky to evoke much of anything. Special effects, even as they’ve grown more fleet of foot, tend to put the brakes on comedy. Or maybe it’s just that the director, Ivan Reitman, didn’t have much of a vision for poking fun at the Lucases and Spielbergs of the world.

Ghostbusters 4Ghostbusters holds up very well as a Bill Murray comedy, even if some of his mugging wears thin. The supporting cast, despite being given little to work with, is more than capable of leaving an impression as well, from Weaver to Rick Moranis to Annie Potts to William Atherton. Ernie Hudson is easily the most ill-used member of the cast, his character the ostensible D’Artagnan of the group who ends up serving very little purpose (“When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!” notwithstanding). It all comes back to Murray, riffing on every piece of exposition, razzing his coworkers and a pagan deity with equal mirth. Later performances would deepen Murray’s smart aleck persona, but there’s a real freedom in the lack of character development here. The twirling itself is a joke.

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