Movie Review Fail: The New York Times on Ghostbusters


Any writer who's ever had the sweet, sweet assignment of reviewing a movie will tell you that the job ain't as easy as it would seem. It requires a pretty substantial background in film history, technique, and style as well as uncanny ability to gauge what the mainstream audience is expecting when they pay $10 to plop down in a cushy seat with a bucket of popcorn.

Then, even the most balanced criticism can be construed as bitter grousing by an overweight and balding failed screenwriter. It's unfair, even if the stereotype in this instance is often spot-on (and that's coming from someone who just attended a press screening earlier this week.)

All that said, sometimes even the best critic just flat-out f**ks up.

In honor of Halloween, let us examine one of the spectacular misjudgments in the history of movie reviews: The New York Times' scathing take on Ghostbusters, as published in 1984.

Today, the movie is perhaps the most beloved horror/comedy of all-time. Chances are, someone will be sporting a proton pack at whatever Halloween party you attend.

In hindsight, however, it's a rare success in a genre that's lends itself to stinkers (see recent suckfests like Scary Movie  and Club Dread for examples) and this is the basic premise with which the author* begins her review:
The systematic pursuit and apprehension of any spooks, vapors or phantasms to be found in a metropolitan area - seems a perfect profession for Bill Murray. It requires a cool head, which Mr. Murray most assuredly has, as well as the ability to remain unruffled by bizarre apparitions - the sight, say, of a fat green ghost in a hotel corridor, gobbling the scraps off somebody's room-service tray.
However, where millions of viewers absolutely loved this idea, the critic just doesn't quite get it. She continues:
This kind of work calls for the kind of sang-froid that, coming from Mr. Murray, amounts to facetiousness of the highest order.

Ready and able as he is to take on the ordinary chores that come his way in ''Ghostbusters'' (like carrying around a sample of suspicious slime, or investigating a haunted refrigerator), Mr. Murray also seems game for the full-fledged horror parody that ''Ghostbusters'' could have been. But, however good an idea it may have been to unleash Mr. Murray in an ''Exorcist''-like setting, this film hasn't gotten very far past the idea stage. Its jokes, characters and story line are as wispy as the ghosts themselves, and a good deal less substantial.
Ok, ok. She doesn't like Bill Murray. It's crazy but a forgiveable bias, perhaps, since he is a smarmy bastard. But what about Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis? They slay with lines like "Back off man, I'm a scientist," and that bit about the twinkie, don't they?
The screenplay is by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who play Mr. Murray's partners in parascience; Mr. Ramis plays the egghead type, and Mr. Aykroyd is more of a blank, since there's barely a role here for him at all.
So, to recap, the plot sucks, Bill Murray is out of his league and Dan Aykroyd doesn't have any good lines. How about the spooks and special effects? Isn't it badass when Sigourney Weaver turns into a demonic dog? Or laugh-out-loud absurd when Mr. Stay-Puft starts stomping NYC?
As long as the film retains its playfulness and keeps the stakes low, things are promising. But once the trail leads to the refrigerator of Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), which contains a hellhound and a gleaming, apocalyptic vision (''Generally, you don't see this kind of behavior in a major appliance,'' Dr. Venkman observes), the film gets out of hand. Ivan Reitman, the director, subsequently has to contend with spectacles like a rooftop demonic shrine and a 100-foot marshmallow dressed in a sailor suit, marching up Central Park West. Not surprisingly, with all this going on, there is more attention to special effects than to humor.
Ouch. Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?'s another of the messy, near-miss films in which [Murray] seems to specialize. Put Mr. Murray in any setting where order, tidiness and rationality are taken seriously, and he becomes the consummate anarchic slob; that's enough to keep ''Ghostbusters'' going, like ''Stripes'' and ''Meatballs'' before it. But Mr. Murray would be even more welcome if his talents were used in the service of something genuinely witty and coherent, rather than as an end in themselves.
Really? Meatballs is better than Ghostbusters? Which one spawned a cartoon series, two sequels (yup, Ghostbusters III, coming in 2012), and raked in $238 million at the box office? (Hint: it wasn't the one about summer camp.)

*As for the author, the review is written by Janet Maslin. Throughout her lengthy career as a critic, Maslin has been excellent and usually spot-on in her reviews. According to her Wikipedia page, she covered movies for the NYT from 1977-1999, and now she reviews books for them. She also wrote for Rolling Stone in the '70's so you know she's not just some tight ass. Sorry, though, Janet, everybody strikes out sometimes. Maybe you'll get a chance to redeem yourself with a review of Ghostbusters III-- that version will probably deserve your scorn.


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