'Ghostbusters' is just another flat, rote remake (PG-13)

After all the online outrage, hand-wringing and cultural thinkpieces, the new Ghostbusters turns out to be business as usual — a bloated remake of a revered comedy that doesn’t reinvent its source material or add fresh perspective. Instead, director Paul Feig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Katie Dippold, settles for reprising all the major plot points of the 1984 comedy about an unlikely team of paranormal investigators. The names and faces are different, but the story is pretty much identical, tricked out with the best special effects $150 million can buy. 

The movie will disappoint basement-dwellers who worried a female-centric Ghostbusters would somehow ruin their childhoods, because it isn’t bad enough to hate. But the film is an even bigger letdown for fans of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, who are forced to play most of this material straight, with no room for comic improvisation. Only McKinnon fares well: Her performance as the group’s gearhead, who is fond of eye-goggles and spontaneously dancing to DeBarge’s Rhythm of the Night, is endearingly bizarre and outsized. She struts and swaggers through the movie, marching to the beat of the music playing inside her head. If the film around her had been half as irreverent, Ghostbusters would have been a riot.

But Feig, who has directed several comedies (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) that made terrific use of ensemble casts, gets too distracted by the elaborate computer-generated spirits to pay his cast any attention. The monsters in Ghostbusters are beautifully detailed and rendered, and the movie looks great, too, full of colors and lights, like a high-tech Christmas tree. But the picture is an ornate ghost town: It has everything but a pulse.

In the original Ghostbusters, the heroes were oddballs, weirdos and socially disruptive: Their strange behavior and tics made them a natural fit for their otherworldly work. In the new Ghostbusters, McCarthy, Wiig and Jones are the butts of the humor instead of the instigators. When Chris Hemsworth, playing the dumbest man in the world, shows up to apply for a job as their secretary, Wiig ogles him and quivers with barely-contained desire, while McCarthy and Jones are astonished by his stupidity. Hemsworth gets the laughs; the actresses get the reaction shots. For all its feminist underpinnings, Ghostbusters is curiously meek and mild-mannered. It’s corporate product, a safe and cautious movie that takes chances only for blatant product placement (could those Papa John’s pizza boxes have been any bigger or more carefully photographed?).

Aside from Rick Moranis, who declined to interrupt his retirement, all of the original cast members make brief, pointless cameos (including the late Harold Ramis; check out the bust outside Wiig’s office at the start of the film). What’s the point of putting Dan Aykroyd in your film if he’s just going to play a cab driver who pops up to say “I ain’t ’fraid of no ghosts!” and then disappears? Too much of the new Ghostbusters is concerned with paying homage to the first movie, from the use of Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song to the incorporation of the Ghostbusters logo into the plot (the logo comes to life as an evil spirit). 

And with the exception of McKinnon, who creates funny stuff for herself to do, the actors aren’t given enough actual jokes. They’re too busy hitting their marks in front of green screens to improvise. When McCarthy reads a sexist comment by an angry YouTube poster talking about their ghost-busting service (“Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts!”), you wish the movie hadn’t stooped to the trolls’ level: These actresses are better than that. And when Wiig quotes Tony Montana before taking down a ghost with her blaster — “Say hello to my little friend!” — her line reading is anemic, as if she were embarrassed, and you cringe right along with her. This cast deserved sharper, stronger material. So did the audience.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia.

Director: Paul Feig.

Screenwriters: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig.

A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 116 minutes. Supernatural action, crude humor. Playing at area theaters.