Could the New Ghostbusters Be Too Funny?

By  · Published on November 4th, 2015

Columbia Pictures

I’m late to the party on this one, but I finally caught up with Spy over the weekend, and it’s definitely the funniest movie I’ve seen all year. I actually watched it on a plane, and I awkwardly literally laughed out loud and got stares from the surrounding passengers. It caught me off guard, because I’m not really an LOL kind of guy, especially in public.

I’m also not one to celebrate a movie just for being “funny.” That term is relative, and comedy is always subjective. I can tell you a movie’s jokes and gags are well-crafted but I can’t promise you’ll laugh at them. Anyway, I’m not here today to address how funny Spy is so much as how funny I’m now expecting the Ghostbusters reboot to be.

And how that could be an issue, particularly for many Ghostbusters fans. Not that Paul Feig hasn’t already received enough unfair flack from the diehard purists, including many who have come off as downright sexist in their disapproval of an “all-female” take on the franchise. I know more sane Ghostbusters fanboys, though, and their slightly more reasonable concerns.

One of these fans, having also recently seen Spy, is legitimately worried that Feig’s Ghostbusters will in fact be too funny. The argument is that the original movie and its sequel, while technically comedies, are not riotous affairs. They involve humor as support for their stories. Whereas Spy has a narrative that’s second to the jokes.

That makes it sound like Spy is a spoof film, since typically it’s movies like Airplane! and other Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker efforts that put the comedy so far in front of the horse, or plot, that’s pulling the movie along that it feels like paying attention to the story is a waste of time. And that is true of Spy, but it’s still not a spoof.

Spy is in fact, first and foremost, a character piece, and most of the comedy comes from the writing and performance of the characters. Not all – there’s still the rodent sight gags, for instance – but most. And the thing is that the original Ghostbusters is also only really comedic when it comes to its characters being funny.

The difference is that the characters in Spy are more exaggerated, especially in the case of Jason Statham’s role. Exaggeration results in more laughs. What’s great about the original Ghostbusters is the contrast between the realistic world and characters (yes, even Rick Moranis’s Louis) and the strangeness of not just the paranormal activity but the very premise of a bunch of guys “busting” ghosts. There’s humor in that concept itself, but it’s light.

It’s unfair to assume right now that the characters in Feig’s Ghostbusters will be as exaggerated as the ones in Spy or that their dialogue will be as joke-filled. But the concern I hear about the reboot being too funny is related to a worry that the four actresses playing the Ghostbusters, including Spy’s Melissa McCarthy, come to the table already too full of personality and will overshadow the story with their shtick.

I don’t think that’s impossible, but the thinking there comes mainly from the quartet’s association with Saturday Night Live, which does require a lot of over-the-top acting and comedy not grounded in realism. And neither Leslie Jones nor Kate McKinnon have had major roles in a major motion picture before, so there’s nothing to go by as far as what to expect from them.

But let’s get back to the main concern, because the idea that any movie could be too funny may seem, itself, too funny. Has it ever happened before? Have you ever seen a movie where you came out of it complaining about laughing too much?

There have been a few instances. First of all, any documentaries that try to be funny, basically most films by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock but also many by filmmakers who aren’t at least actually funny, can be viewed as too funny, or at least too comical, for the subject matter in focus.

I also think Robin Williams’s shtick as the voice of the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin is distractingly too funny. Some of Mel Brooks’s movies count, too, because even when he aims to put the jokes ahead of the plot, particularly in his spoofs, unlike the Z-A-Z team he still puts a little too much into those plots so it seems we should be paying more attention to them but the jokes get in the way.

There are fans who think the Avengers movies have too many jokes. And the MCU in general, which is one of the reasons the DC superhero movie universe has taken a contrary approach and will supposedly be joke free.

And there were criticisms against The LEGO Movie about it being too anarchically silly. Its writer-directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also made the successfully overly funny Jump Street movies, have a similar reputation as Feig in that they’re brilliant as far as being consistently hilarious. But is that appropriate for any franchise?

The answer to that question is no. Ghostbusters is a good example, because an unrealistic level of humor throws off the balance of the unbelievable infiltrating the believable and it can easily kill the stakes involved with the Ghostbusters mission to save the world. If you want to see what the original Ghostbusters would have looked like with too much attempt at comedy, watch Evolution.

Of course, we can’t just presume a writer or director will make a mistake in tone just because of his or her past work. Feig, for one, has also done drama. And his Bridesmaids, while extremely funny, does put its story first. There’s no reason to worry about his ability to find the right level of humor for this.

But then again, I would have thought he’d know better than to fill the movie with distracting cameos from the original movies’ actors.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.