When I saw Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the presentation began with Jason Reitman sitting at an editing bay, genially introducing the film he had just co-written and directed— a regular Gen X Alistair Cooke. Reitman promised fans of the comedy franchise “the greatest Easter egg hunt of their lives.” He also informed us that during shooting, his father, Ivan Reitman, director of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, sat in a director’s chair alongside his son. “This is a film about a family, made by a family,” he said.
If by “Easter egg hunt,” Reitman meant a slow motion, backwards-looking crawl through the ectoplasmic slime of toxic nostalgia, then yes, it’s an Easter egg hunt. It’s certainly not much of a movie.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife ★
Decidedly uncinematic— save for the seat-rumbling thunder that accompanies its various explosions—and marked by ill-conceived and badly-paced humor, Reitman’s film is guided by a barely hidden contempt for the intelligence of the fans it so desperately courts.
As far as it being a film about a family, I suppose that is true on a technical level. The story follows Callie (Carrie Coon), a broke single mother—she is never given a profession—who relocates with her two children (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things and Mckenna Grace of Young Sheldon) to a decrepit farm in Oklahoma that she inherited from her estranged and recently deceased father. But the family dynamic shared by the characters is toneless to the point of being nonexistent, and the limp family values it extolls are undercut by a script that is more interested in folding this story into previous Ghostbusters lore than in the people populating this iteration.
The film is the second Ghostbusters feature— following the Paul Feig directed 2016 reboot that this movie expunges, Stalin-like, from the official Ghostbusters record— to be dedicated to the original film’s costar and co-screenwriter, the late Harold Ramis, who passed away in 2014. His absence is felt most profoundly in the screenplay, which is missing the wit, humanity, and playful disdain for authority that the filmmaker behind Caddyshack and Groundhog Day made his trademark.
In its place are outdated jokes that consistently fall flat and such barely drawn characters that it seems a stretch to even call them bland.
Newly minted Sexiest Man Alive Paul Rudd, playing a seismologist inexplicably slumming as a disinterested summer schoolteacher, attempts to recreate the irreverence Bill Murray brought to the original, but he is given little to nothing to work against or with. Even more egregious is the attempt at comic relief in the form of a young Asian-American character played by Logan Kim, who has a long running podcast and thus has been named Podcast by the screenwriters.
The squandering of talent on the margins of the film is jaw-dropping. In addition to the film’s much ballyhooed and utterly uninspired cameos, there is J.K. Simmons as a briefly reanimated corpse of the town’s occult-obsessed founder, the worse use of a onetime Oscar winner since Dame Judi Dench donned the fur and tail for Cats. At least Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor who briefly appears as a hardware store owner forced by the lazy script to speak the words “ding-dang,” has the excuse that his wife, Coon, stars in the picture.
The one actor who rises above the chasm-deep shortcomings of the script, co-written by the younger Reitman and Gil Kenan (2015’s Poltergeist), is Mckenna Grace, who manages to eke out an inner life for her science-driven moppet Phoebe. But the young actor tread similar territory in 2019’s Annabelle Comes Home, a far superior sequel that offered more exhilarating frights to which her expressive face could respond.
Which brings us to Jason Reitman’s statement that the movie was made by a family. (In addition to being his son’s righthand man, Ivan Reitman serves as the film’s primary producer.)
It is true that with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Jason has entered the unofficial family business of trying and failing to recreate the inexplicable magic that made the original Ghostbusters such a frothy delight. It’s a fool’s errand, one that led his father to make such utterly forgettable special effects comedies as 1989’s original Ghostbusters sequel, 2001’s Evolution and 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend.
That Jason, who was once carving out his own Hollywood path with biting but humanistic comedies like 2007’s Juno and 2011’s Young Adult, has chosen to take up this dark mantle may in the end be the single most haunting aspect to a movie which, in its obsession with looking back, finds no way forward.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.