Something Great in the Neighborhood, by Bob Connally

15 Aug

When your job as a writer is to look at film objectively, it’s important to not get hung up on nostalgia. Thankfully, I do pretty well with that. I might have thought a movie was wonderful as a 9-year old but if it doesn’t work for me now I can’t trick myself into still loving it and I know that I shouldn’t try. If I’m watching a film I loved as a kid now for the 37th time it’s because it still works for me and it works for me in an entirely different way than when I first saw it. I feel that it’s important to be clear about this so you understand where I’m coming from when I say that 1984’s Ghostbusters – a movie I loved almost as much as life itself after I got it on VHS for my 6th birthday in 1988 – is my favorite movie of all-time. I hope that you’re ready to believe me.

Ghostbusters wasn’t just a movie to me as a child. It was a world for my imagination to play in. If I wasn’t playing with the toys, I was running around with my backpack on and my Wiffle bat in hand to be my proton pack. I had a trap that my brother had built me out of a shoebox. At school my friends and I would re-enact the previous afternoon’s episode of The Real Ghostbusters during the morning recess. The only fictional world that had a bigger impact on me was Star Wars. But unlike Star Wars, Ghostbusters took place in the real world (relatively speaking), in the present day. Growing up to be a Ghostbuster seemed like an actual career option, certainly more so than being a Jedi anyway. Even if you’re someone who’s spent his or her whole life wishing you could be a Jedi, answer me this: Who seems like he’s having more fun? Luke Skywalker or Peter Venkman. Without question, being a Ghostbuster sounded far more appealing.

As for the film itself, between the ages of 6 and 10, I watched it the way kids that age watch movies. Repeatedly, obsessively. I knew every line, every music cue, and every deadpan Bill Murray look by heart. It was funny, it was exciting. It had everything. Ghostbusters was easily one of my most watched movies.

I grew older and as is so often the case with the movies we watch more times than we can count when we’re young, I didn’t see Ghostbusters again for several years. I had outgrown the toys, I was too old to run around with my Wiffle bat and backpack and shoebox trap. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the movie anymore but I had seen it probably upwards of 20 times by then and in a relatively short span. It was time to discover other things.

Several years passed and I became a full blown film fanatic. I looked at movies in a different way than I had as a child. My standards were higher, my tastes had changed. But when I watched Ghostbusters again on DVD at 19, I found that not only did it hold up, it was like seeing it for the first time. I understood jokes I had never understood before. “Why worry? Each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back,” was at last hilariously funny to me. I finally knew to laugh when Egon says, “Sorry, Venkman. I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.” I was able to love and appreciate Ghostbusters without the element of nostalgia. This was a great movie, not one I was merely still trying to love because I’d grown up on it.

It really all came together for me though – my grown up sensibilities and my childhood memories – on a Sunday afternoon in November of 2007. It would be the first time I’d get to see the movie on the big screen. And this wasn’t just any big screen. This was a 70mm print at Seattle’s Cinerama. Judging from the condition of the film print it had almost certainly been playing in a packed theater somewhere on opening day, June 8, 1984.(Fun fact: It had the same release date as Gremlins.) Knowing that made me feel connected to all of the kids who had seen that movie for the first time 23 years before. And on that cloudy day I was in a house full of people who got it. Who knew and loved the movie just as I did. Several of them had no doubt played Ghostbuster just as I had as a child. For that hour and 45 minutes I was entranced.

That focus made me appreciate the screenplay and the performances in a way I never had before. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis had written such well-defined characters and along with director Ivan Reitman, made this highest of high concepts feel grounded in a believable world. We saw Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler begin as scientists working at a university, being thrown out onto the street, and taking out a ridiculous loan to start up a business in a building that, as Egon puts it, “should be condemned.” It made it all so plausible somehow.

The contrast between Ray’s childlike enthusiasm, Egon’s seriousness, and Peter’s wry world view was played to perfection by Aykroyd, Ramis, and Bill Murray, respectively. All three brought their best to the table, playing off of each other brilliantly. Aykroyd delivers scientific mumbo jumbo with unparalleled aplomb. Ray really is, as Peter puts it, “the heart of the Ghostbusters.”

Ramis meanwhile, is vastly underrated as Egon. It’s the way he uncomfortably steps out from behind Ray’s freshly turned on proton pack on the elevator, how he says, “I looked at the trap, Ray,” and how he awkwardly looks down at his mark in their low-budget TV commercial. Being a co-writer, Ramis knew every inch of the character and no one else could have played him as well. Any other actor, even a really good one, probably would have either played too hard for laughs or would have played it too flat, not finding any of the subtle choices Ramis did.

Then there’s the Man. Bill Murray had already become a comic superstar on Saturday Night Live and in movies like Caddyshack and Stripes. But this was the one. This was the movie that cemented his deadpan face onto the Mount Rushmore of American film comedy. For the past 33 years it’s not that kids have just wanted to be Peter Venkman. Kids and adults have wanted to be Bill Murray. Because everything he does in Ghostbusters is flawless. Because Peter “never studied” he’s less like a scientist and “more like a game show host.” Making him less of a committed man of science than Ray or Egon gives the audience someone to relate to from the start. Like a goofball Han Solo, Peter Venkman is the “regular guy” in the mix. But he’s not really a regular guy, is he? He’s a guy who gets to make a living chasing ghosts with his best friends and making brilliant wise cracks all day, every day. Who wouldn’t want to be Peter Venkman? Like the man who plays him, Venkman is made out of magic.

What’s striking is that there are no interchangeable lines of dialogue between the three leads. With so many gifted comic actors working together it would be easy to imagine- especially now- that the cast members would end up in a game of one-liner one-upmanship. That maybe Aykroyd would think, “Well, I haven’t said anything in a while and I just thought of a killer line,” only to have it not work because it’s not something that would make any sense coming from Ray. It’s really a Peter line. But that never happens. Everything that comes out of one of their mouths would only be said by the man who says it. The filmmakers’ attention to character detail didn’t stop with Peter, Ray, and Egon though. A lot of writers would have made Dana Barrett’s role a thankless one but without us investing in her the movie wouldn’t have worked. Dana is the anchor of the entire movie. Casting Sigourney Weaver in the part certainly didn’t hurt either. From her first appearance on screen she feels like a fully realized character. To paraphrase Ramis in the film’s audio commentary, she raised Murray’s game as an actor to make the romance between Dana and Peter work. And she absolutely makes us buy her possession by Zuul later in the film. Ghostbusters is a paranormal comedy but Weaver makes the stakes real.

It’s the other performances that make Ghostbusters such a rich experience as well. The everyman quality that Ernie Hudson brings to Winston, the guy the other three hire when business starts to become more than they can handle. Hudson’s role is relatively small, but absolutely essential. As paranormal events become more frequent they start to seem common place to the original three Ghostbusters even as the intensity rises. Winston reacts to these things the way an ordinary person would and he helps the film keep that foot in reality through its final hour.

It’s the exasperation and “bug eyes” of Annie Potts as their secretary, Janine. After Peter mocks her when she tells him that she hasn’t had a break in weeks she answers a call with a bitter, “Ghostbusters,whadda ya want?!” in a way anyone who has worked in customer service can relate to.

It’s the general despicable nature of EPA man Walter Peck, played to utter perfection by William Atherton. Atherton never overplays anything. Peck doesn’t enjoy being an unlikeable government tool; he’s just doing his job and is finding it incredibly frustrating to do. A dumber movie would have made him an outright villain. Instead it’s his clash of egos with Venkman that leads to his foolish and catastrophic order to shut down the ghost containment unit. It makes him feel like a real guy making a believable decision instead of somebody doing something the plot needs him to do.

Finally, it’s the film’s secret weapon, Rick Moranis. Given the freedom to write most of his character Louis Tully’s lines, Moranis is absolute gold as the accountant who lives down the hall from Dana and ends up possessed as “the Key Master.” Even in a movie as beloved as Ghostbusters, Moranis is often overlooked despite giving one of the funniest and best supporting performances of all-time. “Yes, have some!” is my favorite line in the entire movie and it’s entirely because of his delivery of it.

From top to bottom, Ghostbusters is a master class in screenwriting. In addition to the excellent characterizations, the story is perfectly constructed, and it could very well have the highest number of quotable lines in cinematic history. Aykroyd and Ramis should have at least been nominated for an Oscar for their screenplay but mainstream comedies almost never get that level of respect.

What’s most impressive about the entire film though is the magic trick Aykroyd and Ramis pulled along with Reitman. They blended comedy, the paranormal, science fiction, action, big special effects, and horror (the terror dog attacks on Dana and Louis always unnerved me as a kid, even though Louis’s was played primarily for laughs) into one package. Those things don’t normally go together. By all rights they shouldn’t work together. Attempting to put all of that into one movie should cause it to derail by the half hour mark and get progressively worse. But the results couldn’t have been any better. There isn’t one moment that doesn’t work in this movie. (Even some of the weaker effects shots have a charm to them.) What other film could have possibly pulled off a gigantic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man rampaging through the streets of New York? Seriously, what other movie could make that work tonally?

Somehow it doesn’t really feel dated either. Yes, there’s the Ray Parker, Jr. theme along with the handful of other pop songs used but so much of the films is driven by that classic orchestral score from Elmer Bernstein. There aren’t that many “only in the ‘80s” fashion moments either. Ghostbusters isn’t so 1984 that we get caught up in it being a product of its decade. Whether Reitman knew it or not, he was making a timeless film.

Ever since I was first introduced to it so many years ago, Ghostbusters has been a movie near and dear to my heart. I loved it as an imaginative 6-year old who wanted to be a Ghostbuster. I love it now as a comedy fan and as a movie fanatic. Technically, artistically, and comedically, it’s my favorite film of all-time and I grow to love it more with each viewing and with each passing year.   

For a companion piece, I recommend episode 14 of season 1 of The Real Ghostbusters, “Knock Knock.” Telling an original and far more compelling story than 1989’s Ghostbusters 2 in 22 minutes, “Knock Knock” mixes comedy and real character and emotional depth. This animated TV episode from 1987 is the most worthy successor to Ghostbusters there is.

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