Ghostbusters was a massive success when it came out in 1984 and remains an enduring mainstream staple nearly 30 years later. It’s so infinitely quotable and has such massive replay value that it’s easy to take for granted how unique it is. It’s a truly special film, almost a miracle of everyone being in the right place at the right time (especially when you consider mow much the intended cast for the film differed from the one that wound up onscreen). But is it so entrenched in our lives that we blindly assume it’s a perfect film? Is the nostalgia center of our brain wired to disavow critical examination of our beloved cultural artifacts once they reach a certain age?
Before I go further, I should state that I’m not out to ruin Ghostbusters for you. I love the film and the last thing I would want to do is diminish your (or my own) enjoyment of it. I’m of the mind that critical discussion of any piece of art can increase the enjoyment derived from it, even if the argument that’s being made is trying to persuade you that a beloved work might be a bit lopsided. In this case, it’s a quote from someone very close to the project that led me down this path.
Back at the 2008 Fantastic Fest, while promoting City Of Ember, Bill Murray was asked about Ghostbusters 3. It wasn’t the first time he’d fielded the query and the ensuing five years have proved time and time again that it wouldn’t be the last. While Murray has always been fairly vocal about his disappointment in Ghostbusters 2 (it’s his “go to” talking point whenever he’s asked to explain why he’s less than enthusiastic about making a third film), in this case the manner in which he cites the original film is particularly interesting. He subtly alludes that the franchise may have peaked even before the credits ran on the first installment. According to Murray, “I think the first 45 minutes of Ghostbusters is about as fun as a movie gets.”
While that’s an off the cuff statement (and hasn’t really been repeated as one of Murray’s talking points since), it resonated with me the moment I read it. What about the last hour of the film? I had never consciously thought about how I felt about the movie other than, “I love it.” I had certainly never really thought about why I loved it or if I indeed liked certain aspects of it more than others. That quote opened me up to my own mild epiphany - “I love Ghostbusters but I’ve always enjoyed the first half more than the second.” Whether or not that’s what Murray actually meant became irrelevant, that small quote shook me loose from my blind idolatry of the film and allowed me to get to a place where I actually enjoy it more because I have a better understanding of why I like it in the first place.
That’s not to suggest that the second hour of Ghostbusters is in any way bad. It isn’t. In fact, it far outstrips any horror comedy or action comedy I’ve seen in years. It’s full of great moments: William Atherton’s “dickless” DEA agent Walter Peck forcing the shutdown of the gang’s storage facility and unleashing a supernatural tidal wave on Manhattan isn’t only a great scene, it’s a great transition into the film’s third act. You’ve also got the demon dog chasing down Rick Moranis* (ending with that fantastic moment at Tavern On The Green) as well as Bill Murray’s classic explanation of “biblical proportions” to the mayor. And of course both Gozer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man are iconic final villains. In fact, I’d argue that there’s not one scene in the film’s second hour that doesn’t work. It’s all great.
It’s just not as great as the beginning. It lacks the deft touch of the film’s first act (and the beginning of its second). The movie is especially light on its feet here and it hits the ground running with a narrative swiftness that today’s modern blockbusters can only aspire to. The first 12 minutes of Ghostbusters not only give us an inciting incident, they also feature some of the best character introductions of all time. Only 9 minutes pass between the moment the librarian discovers the apparition and the moment our heroes flee from it, but in that space we get to know what makes Venkman, Stantz and Spengler tick. We know which aspects of their personalities drew them to science and we know the dynamics of their personal and professional relationships with one another. Remarkably, none of this feels rushed. The masterful scene where Venkman uses negative reinforcement via electric shocks to subjugate his male student and seduce his female co-ed gives the audience just the right amount of breathing room before the film effectively assembles the team and sends them on their first investigation. Hell, these guys even buy the firehouse, get their gear and adopt the “Ghostbusters” moniker before the 20 minute mark. I’m not saying that today’s blockbusters can’t operate as quickly, but when they do it usually feels like corners are being cut.
I think there are two reasons why the second half of Ghostbusters suffers slightly in comparison to the first, and they eventually dovetail together and collude to constrain the film a bit. 1: It’s widely known that Bill Murray improvised much of his own material, something the film benefits greatly from. Many of the most quotable lines (from both halves of the movie) are his. As the story unfolds and builds to its climax, there’s simply less room for him to do this. Certain beats have to be hit, more information has to be relayed, the stakes are raised and the overall scale of the film grows. As the structure of the film becomes more elaborate Murray’s sandbox shrinks and there’s less room for him to play (an almost impossible problem to avoid given the nature of storytelling - any sort of structure would eventually leash Murray in this scenario). 2: As the story firms up we’re left with fewer options and the sense of discovery diminishes. There’s nothing in the film’s second half that quite matches the sequence at The Sedgewick Hotel because of this. This also affects the humor; there are more comedic options in the first half of the film as well. As the Ghostbusters get better at their job, those options diminish slightly. And while there has to be some kind of specificity when it comes to settling on the big problem our heroes need to solve (and the film continues to make smart choices in this regard), the very act of implementing that specificity negates some of the magic of those first 45 minutes.
And maybe that’s how we should look at those minutes... as magic. After all, the entire film is fantastic (I’m aware that this piece could also be titled “Nitpick: The Article”) and there’s nothing the second hour of the film gets “wrong.” There’s no real misstep, save perhaps for the short shrift given to Ernie Hudson’s character. The only act Ghostbusters commits to warrant this conversation is the very necessary one of telling a good story. Perhaps whatever elevates the first 45 minutes of the film beyond this is something that couldn’t be sustained through the entirety of any narrative. The whole movie is great, but those initial moments are magic. You can’t plan for that, and we’re lucky we got as much as we did.
* Originally I had also intended to contrast the dynamic Sigourney Weaver shares with Bill Murray against the one she shares with Rick Moranis. I thought there would be some interesting stuff there about the idea of masculinity as viewed through the lens of two men in pursuit of the same woman. But, upon rewatching the film, I remembered how intentionally annoying Moranis’ take on Louis Tully is. I felt really sorry for him back in the day, but now I pity Dana for having to live down the hall from him. There’s no contest here.