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Who Is ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ for, Exactly?

Jaap Buitendijk

Let’s clear something up straight away: Ghostbusters is not a comedy.

Now let’s immediately muddy it back up: Ghostbusters (1984), one of the most popular movies of the ’80s, is a comedy, and a very good one. It occupies the top tier of movies inspired by, adjacent to, or otherwise connected with Saturday Night Live, and represents a career highlight for Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and the late Harold Ramis all at once. Ghostbusters II (1989) is also a comedy, albeit very much of the ’80s-sequel variety—a kid-friendlier and intermittently funny attempt to recreate the chemistry of the original.

But when a third Ghostbusters comedy, the lady-centric 2016 reboot, failed to set the world on fire while simultaneously sending the nation’s YouTube dorks ablaze with rage, the caretakers of the series decided—consciously or not—that comedy was not the future of this series. From a business perspective, this makes sense. Comedies are difficult to franchise. How many second, third, fourth installments of a movie comedy series are any good, much less beloved? (Addams Family Values is one. 22 Jump Street is another. Wayne’s World 2 has its fans. But it’s a short list, and the Ghostbusters from 2016 is not as good as any of those, though it is better than any of the Hangover movies.)

Turning Ghostbusters—the (sigh) franchise, not the original film—into an awestruck kid-friendly adventure-fantasy series sidesteps the issue of humor entirely. It also presumably satisfies Dan Aykroyd, who hasn’t been especially funny in a while, but remains a lovable crackpot with plenty of ideas about Ghostbusters lore. His straight-faced recitation of that lore was part of what made the original movie so funny, because it was complemented by Harold Ramis’s even-nerdier deadpan and then undercut by Bill Murray making it clear, in his entirely different style of deadpan, that he did not much understand Aykroyd’s effusions and would not be attempting to try. As a result, there are a lot of quotable lines in Ghostbusters, but most of them depend on context and delivery for their actual effectiveness. It’s hard to just write those out of nowhere, especially without Ramis or Murray.

So maybe Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, the new follow-up to 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, deserves some credit for… not trying? If writers Jason Reitman (son of original director Ivan) and Gil Kenan (veteran of family-friendly spookiness via Monster House and others) can’t manage the Murray brand of not trying, where peerless comic instincts are utilized in a way that feels natural, improvised, and gracefully tossed-off, maybe they should not try to not try. Or try something else.

I know, it’s confusing. I’m trying to be charitable here, because if I’m being honest—despite understanding the business case for them—I’m baffled by the existence of reverent, unfunny Ghostbusters movies. I say this as a longtime enjoyer of Amblin-style kids-on-a-mission movies from the 1980s and beyond. Monster House, the aforementioned Kenan-directed movie, is an antic delight. It is also funnier than Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.

To be fair, Frozen Empire is funnier than Afterlife, and—perhaps more importantly, given that it’s not a comedy—free of the most appalling sentimentality that earlier film summoned in the wake of Ramis’s death. Following the reawakening of the Spengler family legacy or whatever, Egon’s daughter Callie (Carrie Coon), granddaughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), and grandson Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) have relocated to New York City with Callie’s boyfriend Gary (Paul Rudd), and moved back into the old Ghostbusters firehouse, now owned by OG (that’s Original Ghostbuster) Winston (Ernie Hudson). Busting ghosts in New York is a higher-profile gig than it was in Oklahoma, which means the involvement of 15-year-old Phoebe comes under more scrutiny, causing her mom to bench her from the family team for her own safety. Feeling alienated from her “calling,” Phoebe sulks and unexpectedly befriends a fellow teenager (who also happens to be a century-old ghost).

Meanwhile, some dude (Kumail Nanjiani) sells Ray (Aykroyd) an enchanted object that just barely contains a powerful supernatural enemy of humanity, itching to break free and send New York into an extended deep freeze. Various investigations of this and related phenomena further involve Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Podcast (Logan Kim), kids from the previous movie; Pinfield (James Acaster), an employee of Winston; Janine (Annie Potts), former receptionist and still somehow involved with Egon’s estate; an eccentric librarian/scholar (Patton Oswalt); and, briefly, Peter Venkman (Bill Murray, putting in his minimum requirement). If this seems like a lot of ghostbusters and ghostbuster-adjacent staffers, it is, and more actor traffic than director Kenan (swapping places with Reitman, who directed the last one) seems able to handle. To sequelize multiple movies at once, Frozen Empire has to keep dividing its key players into groups of three or four, for scenes that still tend to involve at least one talented actor just sort of standing around, because writing functional scenes to serve three or four characters plus a bunch of exposition is difficult. Sometimes, Oswalt or Rudd will say something funny. Aykroyd says things that are funny, but not ha-ha funny. Wolfhard says things that are presented as funny, but are not jokes, like “What the actual hell?”

But that’s getting hung up on the series’ past again. As a comedy, this is just a third-tier Marvel movie, full of genial laugh-line placeholders. As a kids adventure movie, it’s almost at the level of a second-tier Marvel movie, albeit the kind that makes no real sense. This matters less in a comedy, where breathless, borderline-nonsensical explanations of lore can be part of the fun. In this lore-heavy adventure-fantasy version, things keep happening without any real reason. Callie and Gary treat ghostbusting as a public service, despite some backing from Winston’s private company, no support from the city, and the fact that the original group was explicitly a business (and a blue-collar-coded one, akin to plumbers or electricians, something the movie seems weirdly reluctant to admit, lest it be tainted with the Reagan-era politics of the first film). There’s a running gag about the kids doing unpaid labor. But why is it unpaid? Are the Ghostbusters superheroes now? For that matter, why doesn’t Trevor know that his friend Lucky is also living in the city (without parents?) and interning for Winston (because she… saw some ghosts in the previous movie)? Why does Nanjiani's character Nadeem sell Ray the ghost-imprisoning artifact for a hundred bucks, but leave a cache of much more valuable-looking artifacts intact in his inherited apartment, to be discovered by the other characters later? Why is there a stakes-raising moment where the Ghostbusters’ proton packs are confiscated, only to have them presented with an even bigger group of spare proton packs a few scenes later? On a more granular level, how is the group's accidental destruction of a statue considered grounds for the city to “finally” condemn the Ghostbusters' firehouse, miles from where the accident happens?

That’s the weird thing about Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire: It endeavors to take Ghostbusters a little more seriously without even mastering the basic narrative sense of a children’s film. Kids will probably enjoy it; there are plenty of fun little moments for them to latch onto, from the return of the miniature Stay Puft Marshmallow gremlins to a rambunctious possessor ghost to an ancient form of ghostbusting involving fire and brass. Those unfamiliar with the earlier movies will have an easier time understanding this one; the older guys are just ill-served supporting characters, rather than walking applause-o-meters designed to make 45-year-olds blubber instead of laugh. Phoebe, the most interesting character in the movie, comes closest to doing something completely different with the series, filtering teenage-outcast loneliness through a kind of bittersweet, cross-dimensional queer romance (even if it is laced with what plays a bit like suicidal ideation). But the movie is too ginger to let that romance develop past an ambiguous flirtation. It must be overtaken by the nonsensical plot.

Is this “for the fans”? If so, which ones? Maybe people who remember really liking the Real Ghostbusters Saturday-morning cartoon? (Slimer, the cheerfully ravenous neon-green butterball ghost from the earlier movies, even hides out in the firehouse, presumably a callback to his sidekick status in that series.) Look, I liked a lot of crap when I was a kid, too, but I don’t subject my own child to the Care Bears. There’s nothing inherently wrong with refashioning Ghostbusters into the prepubescent wish-fulfillment it unexpectedly became sometime around Christmas 1986, when the Real Ghostbusters action-figure line debuted. But when the new movie tries to grapple, however briefly, with the aging process, raising the question of whether Ray and Winston want to spend their “golden years” doing this (i.e., serving as supporting characters in a clunky modern franchise extravaganza), it can only come up with embarrassing self-glorifying lip service. Meanwhile, the kids who are supposed to be taking over languish without one-liners to call their own. Say this for Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire: Its generic-sounding subtitle is bang-on. Despite attempts to evolve, the series remains preserved, not quite alive, in an icy block of nostalgia.

Originally Appeared on GQ