About 1984’s original “Ghostbusters,” you must remember this: It’s FUNNY!
That’s thanks to Bill Murray’s deadpan line deliveries, Dan Aykroyd’s fluent discourses in arcane technospeak, Harold Ramis’ droll observations and Ernie Hudson’s perplexity in the face of all the weird goings-on.
The fact is the cast seemed to be having a blast. That feeling comes through loud and clear even after 37 years and countless repeat viewings.
The 1989 sequel, not so much. Seems flat by comparison. Uninspired. Turned off critics and audiences. Bummed out Murray so badly he resisted making any more sequels for decades.
The 2016 “Ghostbusters,” with its all-women cast, regained the mojo. Despite considerable online hate, much of it from the misogynistically inclined, it’s really pretty funny. Kate McKinnon’s manic twinkle carries a lot of the comedic burden. Again, you got a sense the cast was having extreme amounts of fun.
Which brings us to “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” NOT FUNNY!
At least, not very much.
Writer-director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), son of Ivan Reitman, the director of the first two pictures and the producer of this one, made the not-unreasonable decision to rejuvenate the franchise by going young. The story this time centers on a mother and her two adolescent kids.
The mom, Callie (Carrie Coon), is the daughter of Egon Spengler (the character played by Ramis, who died in 2014). The story here is that Spengler retreated from Manhattan, scene of his ghostbusting exploits, to a remote farm in Oklahoma where he lived and died as a mysterious recluse. He expires in the opening scene, apparently frightened into a heart attack by ectoplasmic spirits. Not funny at all.
The boy, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” fame), is a slightly cynical 15-year-old who is none too happy about being uprooted from his home in the city and transplanted to the sticks. His sister, 12-year-old Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), is the brains of the family, clearly having inherited Egon’s bent for science.
Hidden about her grandfather’s spooky old homestead, which looks like “Psycho” house on the prairie, she finds some of his old gizmos, like the nuclear-powered zapper he and his cohorts used to capture otherworldly creatures back in the day. With surprising ease, she intuits how they operate. She’s a genius, you see.
When Trevor literally uncovers his granddad’s old souped-up Ecto-1 Caddy under a tarp in the farm’s swaybacked barn, the kids suddenly find themselves back in the family business. Evil spirits are literally shaking up the town. (Earthquakes! Unheard of in the once-tranquil boonies.) They must be stopped.
These Spenglers are not a close-knit family. The way the actors play their parts, there’s not much of a sense of connectivity between the characters. Callie is a single mom who gives little hint of what the kids’ father was like and claims she has no memory at all of her dad. She seems oddly disengaged from her offspring. The kids seem similarly emotionally distanced from each other. It’s as though everyone is acting in their own private movie.
On hand to romance Callie is Paul Rudd, playing a summer school teacher who for some reason uses the movie “Cujo” to entertain his class. They view the gruesome picture without expression. This is supposed to be funny.
The humor, such as it is, seems like it’s being doled out in a dropper. A drip here, a splat there. More than an hour in, mini Stay-Puft marshmallow men run riot in a department store. That’s momentarily funny.
You wait for the picture to truly take off. You wait, frankly, for Murray and Aykroyd and Hudson to show up and liven things up. (They are, after all, listed in the credits.)
You wait and you wait, through many overamped special-effects action sequences, for the cavalry to save the day, but by the time it finally appears, the picture has been long dead. And then, at the end comes a big surprise that is the most shamelessly sentimental moment seen at the movies in many a moon.