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‘Ghostbusters II’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 16, 1989


Ivan Reitman
Bill Murray;
Dan Aykroyd;
Sigourney Weaver;
Harold Ramis;
Rick Moranis;
Ernie Hudson;
Annie Potts
Parental guidance suggested

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In comedy, laughs are the bottom line, and by this criterion "Ghostbusters II" is well into the black almost before the opening credits have rolled. Hammered together out of the junkiest of elements, the movie rattles along with a pleasing rambunctiousness, tossing off its quips and one-liners and scoring on a remarkably high percentage of them.

Directed (again) by Ivan Reitman, from the script (again) from Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, the picture is neither slick nor streamlined. It's a mishmash, like the first film, big and dumb and clunky. But the dumbness has personality and invention, much more so than in the first film, and the jokes spring right out of the heart of America's long trash heritage. It's classically dumb.

Usually there's an arrogance in sequelmakers. They know they've got you, regardless of what's up on the screen, and the result is often listless and routine, filmmaking by rote. The results here, though, are just the opposite. It's better-looking than the first production (Michael Chapman shot it and Bo Welch designed it) and less mechanical (the gags aren't as programmed or as dependent upon special effects). The filmmakers' confidence in their audience's affection seems to have freed them to relax and play around with their material. Rather than give us less, they give us more. More and better.

What you notice first is how loose and fit-looking the performers are, how comedy-ready. At the very beginning, the filmmakers fix us in time with a joke -- a title reading "Five Years Later." Much has changed in the intervening years. Once heroes, the Busters are now defunct, forbidden from paranormal high jinks by a judicial restraining order. As a result, the boys languish like out-of-work samurai. Ray (Aykroyd) and Winston (Ernie Hudson) are reduced to making appearances at kids' birthday parties. As the host of a cable show titled "The World of the Psychic," Venkman (Bill Murray) is only slightly higher up the celebrity food chain. Only Egon (Ramis), who conducts experiments on the effect of emotions on the environment, has moved on with his life.

These early scenes are filled with nostalgia for the glory days of the first film, and a good bit of water is lackadaisically treaded before the boys shoulder their proton packs for action. As before, the catalyst for their adventure is that ravishingly statuesque cellist, Dana (Sigourney Weaver). Now divorced and the mother of a charismatic baby named Oscar, Dana restores the works of old masters in a museum where the bewitched portrait of a 16th-century tyrant named Vigo the Carpathian hatches a plan to come to life in the body of her cooing toddler.

Baser elements couldn't be imagined, but that's part of the movie's charm -- it's unabashedly lame. Vigo's accomplice is Dana's boss, an art restorer of mysterious origin named Janosz Poha (a riotous name for the dazzling Peter MacNicol), who in his indecipherable Baryshnikovian accent tries to persuade his employee to participate. "You will be the mother of the ruler of the world," he says, innocently. "Doesn't that sound nice?"

Then, of course, there's the slime -- thousands of gallons of it, flowing pink, like molten Pepto-Bismol, in rivers beneath Manhattan. As the sinister byproduct of all New York's anger and bad vibes, this foul, day-glo gunk threatens to overrun the city unless its power is blunted by the buster guys. No one believes them, of course -- not the cops, who put them on trial for violating their court order; and especially not the mayor or his aide, who has them committed as madmen.

None of this amounts to much more than a line on which to hang the comic wash. There's no real tension in the narrative and no development. But these values are irrelevant here, just as they were in the comedies of W.C. Fields or the Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures. The gags -- and the comic repartee -- are everything, and both Reitman and his actors know their way around a joke.

Once again, Murray is the film's lewd spiritual center, its emcee and resident gremlin, and once again he's on a demented wavelength all his own. Without Murray the movie might come across as hopelessly maudlin -- they are, after all, battling the forces of negativity with something like love power. But Murray stems the saccharine tide, sustaining the movie's hip posture.

Over the last few years, Murray has shown that he is more than just a brilliant comic star, he's the embodiment of a whole modern point of view. He's our ironic commentator -- our Groucho. In "Ghostbusters," Murray stood at a cool remove, offering wisecrack editorials on the proceedings -- in the film but not of it -- and from this distance his sendups were almost the whole show. Here, he holds himself in place rather than flying alongside. And though he's just as funny, he's less dominating.

As a result, the rest of the cast is allowed to emerge. Of the Busters themselves, Ramis's Egon is the most vital. Ramis and Aykroyd, the writers, have given Ramis the actor some killer lines. And they've given themselves some nice moments together too, especially a scene in which they test little Oscar's vitals for signs of alien tampering.

There are gifts for the other actors, too (except for Hudson, who is relegated to token status). As Louis, nerd supremo, Rick Moranis is given a chance to show his own brand of invertebrate heroism, and even a romantic interest in the chicly dizzy Annie Potts. As Dana, Weaver may be the swankiest comic foil since Kay Kendall. One of the best things about the film is its attitude toward the Weaver character. For all her long-limbed sultriness, she seems to be a kind of big sister to these wayward boys. And her humanizing touch makes her the perfect partner for Murray -- she makes him seem less like something out of a petri dish.

Of all the oversized comedies to come from the "Saturday Night Live" gang, "Ghostbusters II" is the friendliest, the mellowest. As in the earlier film, there's a heavy reliance on special effects, including a mammoth and rather lackluster finale starring the Statue of Liberty. But even though they're tooled by George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic, the tricks and cartoony ghouls that grace the picture fall wonderfully short of state-of-the-art. All this soft technology is in keeping with the knockabout spirit of the movie. Here, the comedy breathes, and the illusion that it's not a factory-assembled product (which it most certainly is) is a nifty one. For a major studio blockbuster, the thing is darned chummy, and above all, that rare, modest thing, a good show.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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