Friday, August 28, 2009

Film Friday: Ghostbusters (1984)

Everyone likes Ghostbusters. It’s one of those rare comedies that has held up through the years and never gets old no matter how many times you see it. There is a reason for that. Just as interesting, much of what makes this movie so enduring almost didn’t happen. Ghostbusters should be dubbed the “Accidental Movie.”

** spoiler alert **

The Critics Blow Another One
Ghostbusters was generally well received by the critics, though they considered it light fare. Said the New York Times, “Its jokes, characters and story line are as wispy as the ghosts themselves, and a good deal less substantial.” Newsweek called it “summer nonsense.” And The New Yorker said that besides Murray, “nobody else has much in the way of material, and since there’s almost no give-and-take among the three men, Murray’s lines fall on dead air.” Yet, despite these assertions of vapidity, Ghostbusters struck a chord with the public. It spent seven weeks at number one and eventually became the highest grossing comedy of the 1980s. Even today, it is often ranked on “best of” lists. AFI ranks it as the 28th best comedy of all time. IGN named it the greatest comedy ever. Entertainment Weekly voted it the funniest movie of the past 25 years.
The Secret To Comedic Endurance
So what gives Ghostbusters its staying power? The answer is simple, though not intuitively obvious. What makes a comedy successful over the passage of time and repeated viewings is not the jokes, but the strength of the story and the relationship of the characters. Indeed, many of the best comedies could have been written as dramas, with the humor edited in later.

The Ancient Greeks, who invented comedy as a written form, did not think of comedies as particularly funny. To them, a comedy was simply a story with a happy ending. Today, a comedy must provoke laughter. But there are many ways to get laughter and modern comedies come in many forms. Some are stand up routines, some are slap stick. Some are parodies or satire and some can best be described as simply not-dramas. Most of the comedies with staying power fall into the last category for the following reasons:

Humor is fleeting and difficult to achieve, because humor is based on emotion. To get another person laughing, you need to find a way to activate the correct emotional state. Sometimes that can be done by telling jokes. Sometimes it requires the surprise of slapstick. Some prefer intellectual humor, while others enjoy seeing discomfort. What one person finds funny, another may find insulting or boring. Thus, finding the right trigger to bring on the emotional state of humor is very difficult. Moreover, what we find funny changes as we age. Further, because humor is often based on shock or surprise, e.g. revealing the unexpected, it loses its impact the more it is seen. Thus, not only is it difficult to accurately target the funny bone, but it gets harder and harder with each passing viewing to keep hitting that funny bone.

Consequently, the more a comedy relies on pure humor, e.g. jokes, to attract an audience, the more difficult it will be for the film to gain any longevity because the jokes will get stale, leaving nothing else worth watching. This is particularly true where the humor is referential to current events or then-existing social norms. Cartoons, stand-up routines, and parodies typically fall victim to this, as do gross-out films and films that are little more than disguised sketch comedy.

But the "not-drama" comedy can avoid this fate becaue that form of comedy treats the story and the characters as paramount, and only interjects humor carefully where appropriate to serve the story. Because this type of comedy relies on the story and the relationships of the characters to attract the audience, rather than the jokes, the audience can still enjoy the movie just as much as they did initially, even long after they have stopped laughing at the jokes.
Ghostbusters Is A Story/Character Based “Comedy”
Ghostbusters is such a comedy: It is driven by the plot and the characters, not the humor. In fact, if you remove one or two lines from a handful of scenes, cut out a few seconds of recognizable comedic acting (like the slapstick manner in which they flee the ghost librarian), and change the Stay Puft Marshmallow man and the green slimer into something more menacing, Ghostbusters becomes a drama or even a horror movie.

Indeed, all the elements are there for Ghostbusters to be an effective dramatic movie about four men who hunt ghosts for a living. It is only through the addition of a handful of humorous lines, the inclusion of brief moments of easily recognizable comedic acting, and the choice to add a level of ridiculousness to the final confrontation that the drama disappears seamlessly into a comedy. And since we enjoy the movie because we like the story, because we like the relationships built by the characters, and because we enjoy the world they have created for us, rather than because we are waiting to see a series of jokes executed by the actors, we can re-watch this movie over and over.

And if you think this isn’t a dramatic movie first and foremost, consider the scene where the Ghostbusters are called to the Mayor’s office, where they confront Peck. With the exception of Bill Murray, nothing in that scene tells you this movie is a comedy. The scene is heavy and dark, and the characters act just as they would if they were in a drama. Even when Murray smarts off, the other characters don’t react in any of the traditional comedic styles, they react in a realistic manner, just as one would react to someone who has told the truth, but in an insulting way. Thus, the humor is delivered, but the dramatic tension of the scene is maintained. In other words, you get to laugh, but you never lose your place in the story.

Ghostbusters also deals with some very heavy, i.e. “dramatic”, themes, the types of themes that can’t be handled in a pure comedy. Specifically, consider the discussion between Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd regarding God, Jesus and Revelations. No jokes are made during that discussion and the issues aren’t raised as set ups for future jokes. This is a true dramatic moment, which gives the viewer context for the multitude of ghosts suddenly appearing. If this scene was transferred directly, without change, into a John Carpenter movie, this would be considered the payoff scene that sets up the terror about to be unleashed, no one would recognize it as coming from a comedy.

Even the effects are often much scarier than one would expect for a comedy, and the soundtrack is scored as a drama, a concept that gained notoriety after John Landis asked Elmer Bernstein to score Animal House as if it were a drama. Bernstein scored Ghostbusters as well.
The Character Relationships Are More Dramatic Than Comedic
The character relationships also are more like a drama than a comedy. In a more joke driven comedy, like Beer Fest, the characters must all have unusual traits that come into play to make various scenes work throughout the movie. Their reactions are exactly what is needed to make each joke work.

In Ghostbusters, by comparison, the characters act realistically, i.e. as they should when confronted with events around them. The humor is then woven into the dialog, as appropriate, rather than having the scene built for the humor. And what this does, is it allows us to respond to the characters on an emotional level, something you cannot normally do in a humor-driven movie.

For example, we feel comfortable and welcomed by the ease of the relationship between Ramis and Aykroyd, and by Aykroyd’s childish innocence. We feel inspired by Ernie Hudson’s discussion of faith. We long for the slowly developing romance between Murray and Weaver to pay off. And we pull for the oblivious, but good-natured Rick Moranis. These are the types of responses you don’t get in a more joke-based movie. Ask yourself, which character in Airplane makes you feel welcomed or inspired? Do you really care about the romance between Striker and Elaine?
The Accidental Movie
This is why Ghostbusters has been so successful, because it is first and foremost the story of five or six characters, who happen to be involved in the business of hunting ghosts. It is that story and the relationship of the characters that keep viewers coming back, the jokes are secondary.

Thus, it is interesting to learn that the things that make Ghostbusters tick almost weren’t part of the movie. For example, as just noted, the realism of the story is what connects us to the movie. But the original concept for the movie was not very realistic. Aykroyd’s original concept called for the Ghostbusters to act as a sort of SWAT team, traveling through time in a flying car to fight ghosts. But because this would have been too expensive to shoot, Reitman brought in Harold Ramis to re-write the script and bring it into modern times. If CGI had existed at that point, Ghostbusters would have been a very different movie.

Further, when the movie was originally written, Aykroyd wanted John Belushi instead of Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy instead of Ernie Hudson, and John Candy in place of Rick Moranis. Belushi died, opening the door for Murray, and, frankly, probably saving the film. Murray and Belushi are hardly interchangeable, and I have never seen evidence that Belushi could carry off the leading man role that Murray delivered so perfectly in Ghostbusters. Indeed, compare the “romance” between Belushi and Carrie Fisher in The Blues Brothers against Murray’s romance of Weaver, and you can see how a key element of the film would have changed.

Similarly, replacing the understated and dignified Hudson with the scene stealing Murphy (who rejected this project to shoot Beverly Hills Cop) would have killed the triangular dynamics established by the writers between the three original Ghostbusters. Likewise, John Candy, who was to play a straight-laced conservative neighbor of Weavers', cannot deliver the “little guy” character that Moranis so brilliantly gave the audience. Moranis' character was vital because he put a heart into the possession scenes, and he humanized what was happening. Candy's more outlandish style would have yielded very different results. Fortunately for us, Candy refused to commit, and in stepped Moranis.

Ramis also did not originally intend to play Dr. Spengler, until they could not find anyone better. And many of the names considered, like Christopher Walken or John Lithgow, again would have seriously changed the chemistry that became so important to the film. Have you ever seen a movie in which you felt Walken was someone you wanted to befriend?

Any of these changes could have dramatically changed the tenor and feel of this film. Thus, ironically, much of what has given Ghostbusters its longevity could well be considered an accident. Fascinating.

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21 comments:

ScottDS said...

Now you've done it, haven't you? :-)

Ghostbusters is one of my favorite films of all time. I can't even recall the first time I saw it but it must've been before I started kindergarten since that year I was a ghostbuster for Halloween (1988). I had all the toys, the trap, the proton pack, the Ecto-1 (and later the Ecto-1A), the firehouse, etc. My brother had the slime blower from the second film.

Even today, I'm the proud owner of the original making-of book (purchased on eBay a few years ago) and the limited edition score CD (also released a few years ago, limited to 3000 copies). I purchased the Blu-Ray disc and the movie's never looked better.

And you are correct - this isn't a laugh-a-minute comedy like Airplane! though it's interesting you brought that movie up. If you stripped the jokes out of Airplane!, you're still left with a decent disaster movie (Zero Hour!, actually). One of the reasons why I think the ZAZ boys were disappointed with Top Secret! was because the plot really was nonsensical and more dependent on the jokes. Contrast that with The Naked Gun which, again if you remove the jokes, you have a pretty good detective movie.

The genius idea Ivan Reitman brought to Aykroyd's first draft was to ground the film in reality. It's basically a going into business story, isn't it? In the DVD commentary, he talks about the "domino theory of comedy" meaning if you set up something small at the beginning (library ghost), the audience will buy the big stuff (marshmallow man) at the end. And yes, when I went to New York a few months ago, I got my picture taken in front of the actual firehouse (14 N. Moore St.).

I'll probably have more to say about the film later. I always promise myself "I won't take up too much space with my comments" but that never seems to happen. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm not sure there is much left in Airplane or the Naked Gun if you strip out the humor, but you're right, there is a lot more of a real story left than in a movie like Top Secret.

As I explain in the article, I think it's no accident that almost every comedy with real staying power is first and foremost, an engaging story with engaging characters, with the laughs being secondary.

I think what this does for the film is that it makes it work on a different level for us, a level that isn't as dependent on shock, surprise, or newness. Thus, even when the jokes get so old that you no longer laugh at them, the story is still worth watching.

That's not to say that a movie can't be a great movie to watch if it's just based on humor, but it will be more difficult to connect with a large audience and it is likely to get old fairly quickly.

Writer X said...

Such a good movie. I don't know what it is about Bill Murray but he can make me laugh without even saying anything. He's in several of my all time fav movies.

You are so right about creating that emotional connection with the audience through effective character development. The same is true when writing a book.

Another reason why I think Ghostbusters works so well is because they're all just a bunch of average Joe's. None of them are hearthrobs. In that way, I think the audience can relate better with them. And perhaps that's why the humor works so well too--and the good writing, of course, never hurts.

StanH said...

I saw this movie with my x-wife on opening night, it was our last night out, and laugh together, …hallelujah! Great movie, Bill Murray connected on a personal level, he at times seemed to be talking directly to the audience, through the camera, something he uses in a lot of his movies. Harold Ramis is brilliant in most anything he does, he played Egon perfectly, the eggheaded dweeb so entranced is his science to recognize danger. Dan Aykroyd made a great wild eyed enthusiast. The whole cast worked well together in a perfect cinematic presentation given to us by the genius of Ivan Reitman, for the genre. The movie self markets and crosses generations word of mouth, reputation. My son who is twenty-two had to have all things Ghostbusters my daughter, eighteen not so much. Cool flick!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Going back to the Ancient Greeks again, it has generally been the rule that in a comedy, the ordinary man must succeed, but in a drama someone extraordinary must fall.

I think we've blurred that a little more today, but that does seem to have been the formula for a couple thousand years.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan & Writer X, I think that Murray was critical to this film. He's one of those guys who just manages to project an imagine of being a guy that you really want to like. And he uses that well in Ghostbuster.

In fact, I think the relationship between Murray and Weaver foreshadows the formula used today, where a sort of geek, loser, aims way above himself and manages to succeed in getting his dream girl by making her laugh. This is a forumla used extensively today, though rarely as well as Murray does it -- probably because Murray wasn't mimicking a formula, this just fit his style of acting.

Writer X said...

Andrew, I think you've just nailed it. Except that Murray did it without making it look so obvious.

I so loved his character in WHAT ABOUT BOB? There was no romance in that film, but I think that's one of his best films and it's probably the least well known. Go figure.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, What's interesting to me is when I go back and I look at Murray's old films and I realize just how much he carried many of those movies. A lot of those movies weren't very good, except for his ability to pull you in. I'm thinking about Meatballs in particular, which was a much better movie when he was on screen than when he wasn't.

On a related note, something I really liked about Lost In Translation, though I was disappointed over all in the movie, was how they used Murray's good will to give you a sense of how out of place these people felt being in a foreign land. Murray really managed to bring that idea home by meticulously avoiding all of the Murrayisms that we've become accustomed do.

Writer X said...

It's been so long since I've seen LOST IN TRANSLATION (didn't love the film) but it was interesting to see him in such a different role. You always expect humor but in that role he really pulled off self-deprecation. But, unfortunately for my tastes, at least in that movie, it went on a little longer than it should have. I ended up being slightly bored with the story.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I really appreciated his performance and I loved the concept (havig found myself in some strange places overseas, I see the possibilities with this kind of movie), but I agree, the movie was simply too dull.

StanH said...

“What about Bob,” loved it. “Leo Marvin, …Dr. Leo Marvin,” bob screams in the street. Or, “would someone please hit me in the face,” as he prepares for his bus trip. I know I’m out of order but, Perfect Murrayisms.

Writer X said...

Stan, How about:

"There are those people who love Neil Diamond and those that don't."

Or,

"Are these hand-shucked?"

Love that movie.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Great analysis. But I personally think the whole movie is classic because of its only genuine star--the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Tennessee Jed said...

What a nice article, Andrew and, in my view, right on point. As I read, I had a couple of thoughts based on your comments. First, Ghostbusters was a movie I didn't love at first view, but actually became more enjoyable with subsequent viewings.

Second, I chose (in my mind) to contrast that with the Jim Carey films "Liar, Liar" which cracked me up the first time I saw it, but fell completely flat during a second viewing, and "Dumb and Dumber" which I once laughed at hysterically while in one of those late night silly moods you sometimes get into when partying with friends. I suspect if I teed that one up right now, I would barely crack a smile.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed, I always aim to take these from a slightly different perspective than just a regular review.

It's interesting that Ghostbusters grew on you. I think that kind of shows that your interest in the movie was based on something other than just the jokes.

You make a good comparison to Liar Liar and Dumb and Dumber. I feel that way about a lot of the comedies I watched in the past. They were really funny at the time, but now they hardly bring even a chuckle.

Mighty Skip said...

There were two lines of this movie I didn’t come to appreciate until much later in life. First was the dig at the University system and the line I now use on any academic scientist I ever meet:

“You've never been out of college! You don't know what it's like out there! I've *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.”

And the other line I use constantly: “Back off man, I'm a scientist.”

AndrewPrice said...

Skip, I used to work for Club Fed, and when Men in Black came out, I saw it in a theater in D.C. When Rip Torn tells the guys who failed the test, "you're what we've come to expect from years of government training," I burst out laughing (as did my buddy). No one else in the theater was laughing. . .

I like that line, by the way, "back off, man, I'm a scientist."

LawHawkSF said...

MightySkip and Andrew: My ex was a government employee (assistant criminalist for the Santa Clara and San Mateo Sheriff's Departments). When I really wanted to annoy her, I'd botch some task up, and say "close enough for government work." Worked every time--right up to the divorce.

Individualist said...

Andrew,

You are spot on about what makes GB I great, though I never really realized it was the seriousness of the characters and plots that drove the numor. It is interesting that you speak of the gravity of the Mayor's office because to me that is one of the funniest lines in a movie.

Is that true?

Yes this man ahs no _______.

Another movie Akryod was in and did a geat job in although he did not write it was 'My Step Mother is an Alien". This tood a silly premise but handled it seriously. I think another point from both these films is that the monsters were not comic but severe. You got the feeling that the rest of the movie aside if these got a hold of you then you'd be toast. The Zuul scene was actually scary. So the villians were real too.

The best line from GB I has to be if the Ghost asks if you are a god, you say YES!.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualy, I'm happy to hear I gave you something to think about! That's my purpose, not just to review movies.

I agree with you about that scene being one of the funniest (if not the funniest) in the film. And it works because they build all this tension and then Murray whips out the big tension killing line, and you are as much startled as you are laughing. It's super well done.

Kit said...

A similar thing with ACE VENTURA and LIAR, LIAR. Two of Tom Shadyac's Jim Carry movies.
The former is a story a decent mystery: "Who kidnapped Snowflake?"
There's even a big twist at the end.

LIAR, LIAR is about a man and his son. Here, I think Jim Carrey shines, especially in the movie's more dramatic moments.

There is one moment in the movie that says why it is so good.
It is when Max Fletcher (Jim Carrey) blurts out to his angry wife during an argument:
"Listen, I'm a bad father!"

The look on his face is heartbreaking. He can only speak the truth and the truth has been spoken: He is a bad father. And she responds that he isn't "when you show up."

"Listen! I'm a Bad Father! . . . I'm a bad father."
"You're not a bad father, when you show up."
Link at DailyMotion: VIDEO LINK

Watch his face at around 1:10, when he realizes what he said and, since its the truth, we know it is not only true but something that he's secretly known all along.

Both those lines, his revelation, and her response tell us everything about the main character: He is a bad father and a part of him has known it, but he has the potential to be a good one again.

Then, when he fails to make the appointment (they don't buy that he is in jail) he has to go out to the airport and prove his love for his son in one of the greatest moments in Carrey's career: Hijacking a flight-of-stairs.

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