In Defense of Ghostbusters II

In Defense of Ghostbusters II
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I have a very clear memory of being incredibly excited to have my mother and her boyfriend take me to see Ghostbusters II on Christmas Day, 1989. I can remember the sidewalk outside the theater, the movie poster with the iconic ghost flashing a peace sign meant to signal the number two, the long-ago boyfriend’s sports car. My delight with the pink slime and the Bobby Brown soundtrack. The hundreds of times I have subsequently quoted my childhood hero (and crush) Egon Spangler’s perfect single line characterization of the sort of childhood that produced him: “We had part of a slinky, but I straightened it.” Turns out, much of this memory is false.

Ghostbusters II was released in June 1989, my mom and that dude weren’t even together then, and no one has any recollection of anyone taking me to the theater to see that movie. But every year around this time, I watch Ghostbusters II, feeling nostalgic for something that never happened. When the film was released, Ghostbusters was the highest-grossing comedy of all time, beloved by critics and audiences alike. Five years later, its sequel was dismissed by critics as a money-hungry attempt to cash in on the first film’s unexpected success, and lacking the magic of the original. Most of the critics whose reviews earn the movie just 53 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes viewed Ghostbusters II as, at best, a silly absurdly plotted follow-up.

But labeling Ghostbusters II as silly in comparison with the original also seems like a warped memory. Ghostbusters is a film about three scientists from Columbia University, one of whom possesses no knowledge of science, who somehow manage to build unlicensed nuclear reactors in order to catch a conveniently timed deluge of ghosts being summoned by a Central Park high-rise that is actually a portal to another dimension. The film’s main villain is the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Ghostbusters is also an incredibly imaginative, hilarious movie that is scary and fun with an ending that feels both satisfying and sweet, like the residual marshmallow fluff coating the city. Outside the sequel and possibly the reboot, depending on the kindness of the fan you ask, it is hard to think of any movie that compares in terms of a batshit premise that works in so many genres. It’s no wonder kids loved it right along with their parents. Ghostbusters has something for everyone. Its creators, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, seem to have loved the franchise as much as the audience did, trying right up to Ramis’s death in 2014 to get a third film made.

Lack of maternity leave, workplace sexual harassment, and a tyrannical man with very bad blonde hair are the main sources of conflict in Ghostbusters II.

Maybe the reason the sequel was written off as bad is the fact that most sequels are bad. According to Guinness World Records, the top two highest-grossing comedies of all time are disappointing sequels: The Hangover Part II and Meet the Fockers. So often, as is the case with these two films, sequels feel like afterthoughts tacked on because the original made money. Audiences, hoping to reconstruct the delight they felt the first time around, buy their tickets and are usually pretty disappointed by canned, mechanical follow-ups that either rehash all the gags from the original or take the story in a direction that negates the spirit of the first film. And critics came away from Ghostbusters II largely claiming that was the case. The film reunites the original cast with director Ivan Reitman in a screenplay written by stars Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd. And the plot is definitely a variation on the structure of the first: Once again, Dana Barrett is in danger because some megalomaniac has made her home unsafe and susceptible to hauntings.

But while bureaucracy was the real villain of Ghostbusters, lack of maternity leave, workplace sexual harassment, and a tyrannical man with very bad blonde hair are the actual sources of conflict in Ghostbusters II. In Ghostbusters II, the characters from the first film are washed up and in legal trouble five years after the events of the first film. Dana Barrett, turned into a dog back in ’84, is now a single mother left with an eight-month-old son and no maternity leave from her job with the orchestra. Hard up for money, she must politely dodge daily sexual harassment from her boss at a temporary gig cleaning paintings for the Manhattan Museum of Art. When a sentient painting of a murderous dictator is willing to sacrifice children for power, Barrett’s shitty boss is equally willing to steal a baby from its mother for a chance to bone his uninterested employee.

I can’t say that I was aware that the real villain of Ghostbusters II was the patriarchy in 1989 when I was in kindergarten, but in my defense, neither did the critics, who called it Four Ghostbusters and a Baby. Most seemed to think that the movie went too far in the direction of children’s entertainment and wanted more of the grown-up humor of the first. When the New York Daily News reviewed Ghostbusters II, the publication called it “a fairly mechanical spook show, filled with grinning ghosts that are definitely ghoulish but hardly menacing.”

There are plenty of criticisms of the film that I totally get—the stakes are too low, the conflicts too easily resolved, and characters like Winston Zeddemore, the only black person in either film save a cameo by Bobby Brown, given nothing to do. But as a children’s movie that is also funny for adults, Ghostbusters II is fucking good.

In 1984, there were no entire streaming platforms dedicated to children’s entertainment or an endless barrage YouTube content designed to keep us glued to an iPad. We had a handful of animated movies and a few highly imaginative weirdo movies, like Labyrinth, for entertainment. And when Ghostbusters came along, we had that too. I remember rewinding the VHS tape with my cousins to watch it on a loop as we simultaneously acted out the scenes with their miniature Ghostbusters firehouse, essentially a dollhouse that both boys and girls could play with free from judgment. In 1986, The Real Ghostbusters animated series premiered, hyping us for the 1989 sequel even more. And it didn’t disappoint. My cousins and I, along with every other kid fan who was allowed to watch, did not see any plot holes or wooden-seeming ghosts. Instead, we saw a movie that made us laugh while scaring us a little, the same as the original had.

And though the original Ghostbusters will always be my go-to, Ghostbusters II is still a weirder, funnier movie than pretty much any other sequel languishing mostly forgotten on the highest-grossing comedy list. Venkman’s talk show, World of the Physic, featuring a hairless cat named Ira is still a great gag, as is Egon’s slinky. In fact, most of the jokes are consistent with the characters created in the first film, building a through-line that makes the sameness of the stories feel like a continuation of something started five years before. Of course, Venkman’s childishness would eventually cause a rift between him and Dana, who was too good for him. Naturally, Spangler is back in the safety of academia disinterestedly taking puppies from children to measure the psychic toll of disappointment. These choices, along with many others, feel much more carefully thought out lazier sequels, like The Hangover Part II that simply asks, okay but what if they were hungover in a different town? Ghostbusters II at least imagines how the characters might be different yet the same after the events of the original are largely forgotten and unrewarded.

As an adult, I can see that the pink slime covering the art museum looks pretty cheaply done and that the decision to have the Statue of Liberty save the day is a blatant rip-off the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man who terrorized New Yorkers in the first film. But I can also see interesting subplots involving Dana’s horrible boss and petulant men who feel entitled to power, children, women, or whatever else they want, which isn’t simply a rehashing of the themes of the first. And ultimately, the means of stopping these villains isn’t the proton packs, it’s the shared humanity of the city.

In the late ’80s, New York City still had a reputation for being dirty, angry, and dangerous. When the Ghostbusters suggest that the evil painting is being fueled by public unrest, the mayor replies “Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker’s God-given right.” It’s one of my favorite quotes from the movie because it’s funny. And at the time, the line probably resonated with the average American’s idea of what New York was like. Yet the film also ultimately proves that statement false. In the end, New Yorkers sing “Auld Lang Syne” together on New Year’s Eve outside the art museum, which breaks the spell and defeats the bad-haired bad man.

Upon this year’s viewing, I definitely brought my own lens of importance to the movie, which never could have anticipated that 30 years later we would have elected a president who advocates for the American right to feel miserable and treat other people like dirt. But on New Year’s Day, the happy ending of Ghostbusters II feels good in the same way that holiday nostalgia feels good: it doesn’t have to be universally accurate in order to be correct.

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