October 28, 2021

Bill Murray, along with his fellow ghostbusters (Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who also wrote the script) has been prowling the corridors of a swank hotel in search of a green spirit. Unfortunately, Murray finds it. We cut away before the ghost engulfs him, then follow Ayrkroyd as he runs to Murray’s aid. Murray, prone, is covered with goo. “He slimed me,” says Murray, as Aykroyd gives comfort. A moment later, Murray, still supine, rolls his head back, looks heavenward, and lets loose with an oddly satisfied sigh, “I feel sooo funky.”

I don’t know what this line means. I’m not sure I want to know. But I know that it made me laugh all through the next few scenes in Ghostbusters. There is something divine about Bill Murray, and I mean that adjective in the truest sense. Murray’s screen persona walks among men, but he is apart from them. He can’t really be called courageous, yet he faces danger, authority, and sexual aggression without the slightest trace of fear. As Newsweek‘s David Ansen put it, “His response stays the same, whether he is confronted by a green demon or an ordinary man in the street: nothing fazes his lunatic disengagement from reality.” We cannot imagine a life for Murray outside the running time of his films; he’s unreal, he couldn’t survive in the world of the flesh.

Murray is not yet on the same plane as the great Groucho Marx, but I thought about Groucho while watching Ghostbusters. Like Groucho, Murray’s anarchic insouciance is a liberating force; he gives gleeful life to all the comebacks that we would like to be able to make to authority figures and incompetents. Part of Murray’s popularity must stem from the fact that his humor is rarely laced with malice; rather, he floats his words on a breeze of laid-back cheer. This is, of course, the opposite of Groucho’s rapid patter. But Murray has a scene with Sigourney Weaver – who is both beautiful and funny in Ghostbusters – after she’s been possessed by the spirit of a ghost who’s been haunting her apartment refrigerator, during which the two of them achieve a comic dialogue the likes of which has not been seen (or heard) since Groucho parted ways with Margaret Dumont.

Weaver is writhing in heat on her bed (she is about to levitate above the bed, which prompts Murray to later remark, “I like her because she sleeps above her covers – four feet above her covers” – but still, no big deal), and she entices Murray hither. He’ll have none of it. The scene he sees before him is too fraught with possibilities for one-liners, and he is drunk on comic opportunity. It’s impossible to imagine Murray and Weaver actually bedding down after the movie ends just as it was impossible to imagine what Groucho might do if he actually convinced one of the objects of his desire to join him between the sheets full of cracker crumbs.

So what about the movie itself? Well, Ivan Reitman continues to be the worst comedy director at work today, but he seems to be Bill Murray’s guide, what with Meatballs and Stripes and all. And presumably he provides the improvisational atmosphere in which Murray thrives. Aykroyd and Ramis maintain second-banana status; there is also an inexplicable fourth ghostbuster, Ernie Hudson, who seems to be there to get the black vote.

And Rick Moranis is so good as Weaver’s geeky neighbor that it makes up for Streets of Fire. Well, almost. With these people hanging about, plus the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, Ghostbusters can’t miss being agreeable. As for Murray, he won’t have Reitman to fall back on for his next movie. He plays the seeker-of-the-infinite in The Razor’s Edge. It’s unfair, but you can’t help imagining him experiencing his moment of oneness with the Absolute, putting his head back against a tree trunk, watching the sun rise, and whispering softly, “I feel sooo funky….”

First published in The Informer, May/June 1984

At this point in my budding career I was writing reviews in a daily newspaper, The Herald, and also editing the Seattle Film Society’s newsletter, The Informer; I rarely wrote two reviews of the same movie (something I did a lot of when I later wrote for The Herald and at the same time), but I guess Ghostbusters was one of them. I posted the other review almost ten years ago – man, time flies. I suppose I would watch it again someday, but only for Murray.

Ghostbusters II

June 3, 2021

The first Ghostbusters wasn’t much of a movie, but it had a clever premise, a No. 1 song, and it allowed Bill Murray to float along in his own dreamy, wise-cracking universe. These elements brought the film a $220 million return and status as the highest-grossing comedy in history.

That noted, the only question about the sequel is, Why did it take five years to make? The answers are varied; for one thing, star Bill Murray wigged out for a few years and was skittish about a sequel. For another, Columbia Pictures was briefly under the stewardship of renegade producer David Puttnam, who was interested in grander things than slime.

Hollywood being what it is, Puttnam is back in England and Columbia is betting its future on Ghostbusters II. Nothing has been left to chance. The King Midas director, Ivan Reitman (Twins), is back, and Murray’s ghostbusting partners Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis have written the script again, and are co-stars. And Sigourney Weaver returns, as Murray’s one-time paramour, now a single mom and once again at the center of a Manhattan ectoplasmic disturbance.

That means the ghosts are back. In fact, the sewers under New York are choked with pink slime, the result, it turns out, of all the bad feeling – the “negative energy” – of New York City. That’s a lot of slime.

The ghosts pop up at the bidding of a centuries-dead madman who wants to be reincarnated as Weaver’s baby. Actually, the ghost outbreak comes not a minute too soon, because the Ghostbusters have been discredited and even sued for the destruction they caused at the conclusion of the original film. Murray’s character has hit rock bottom; he’s hosting a sappy show about psychic phenomena (it’s one of the movie’s funniest scenes).

The film has the expected sliming sequences and some ghost-zapping, a bit of romance between Ghostbusters secretary Annie Potts and super-nerd Rick Moranis, plus some spare time for Murray’s wooing of Weaver. The scenes between these two are the movie’s best, as was true of the first film. With a worthy sparring partner – and Sigourney Weaver is nothing if not a strong presence – Murray is moved to deliver his loopy asides with extra relish.

Director Reitman’s main talent (his only talent, as far as I could ever see) is creating space for Murray to work up his improvisational banter, which he has done since the ragged days of Meatballs and Stripes. Succeeding at that, Reitman fails to make much else of interest here; you get the sense that a lot of stuff that didn’t work was left on the cutting-room floor. The film feels choppy and the finale is noisy and perfunctory. Somehow it seems like a longshot to repeat the staggering success of the first go-’round, but the box-office summer is already off to a fast start, and Bill Murray’s shrugging shoulders are broad.

First published in The Herald, June 1989

The female-led remake was much funnier. The only reason I can think of to watch it again – well, aside from the Murray-Weaver mojo – would be Peter MacNicol, who plays a villain.

Casual Sex?

November 5, 2020

For its first 20 minutes or so, Casual Sex? looks as though it’s going to be a distaff version of the stupid, emotionally arrested male sex movie. The main characters, played by Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson, address the camera and tell us about how weird men are and how difficult relationships have become.

When they take off for a vacation at a health resort, where most of the movie is set, the men there all seem to be either obnoxious guys with hair all over their bodies or pea-brained hunks. So far, Casual Sex? is proving that a movie made by women (it’s directed by Genevieve Robert) can be as sexist as the many awful sex comedies made by men.

Oddly enough, once the movie gets the easy jokes out of its system, it becomes likable, on a relatively minor level. Part of this is because Thompson and Jackson (she’s the baby-voiced blonde on Saturday Night Live) give some realistic dimension to their characters, and partly because the men, while secondary, are allowed some humanity.

In particular, the chief caveman, a bellowing would-be stud named Vinnie (aka “The Vin Man,” played by Andrew Dice Clay) slips out of the noose of caricature and becomes unexpectedly sympathetic. He tries reading The Pretend You’re Sensitive Handbook, but still can’t get anywhere with women until he learns to be himself, whatever that might be.

The script by Wendy Goldman and Judy Toll ticks off the major anxieties of the sexual scene, including AIDS.

The film is a little too pleased with itself, especially when it comes to saying naughty things; the filmmakers seem to think they’re making some of these jokes for the first time. But the last scenes of the movie, which look ahead a few years, are genuinely warm and cozy, and give a concise impression of how far the characters, and the movie itself, have come.

First published in The Herald, April 1988

That paragraph that consists of just one sentence, mentioning AIDS – I wonder if I said something else that got cut out of the review. Evidently the ending I liked was a re-shoot, engineered to get the Diceman (who tested well in previews) more screentime. Director Robert is married to Ivan Reitman. Writers Goldman and Toll were members of the Groundlings, and separately did a bunch of performing and writing after this; Toll died in 2002. It will not surprise that the question mark in the title was added by the studio. By the way, has anybody used the word “distaff” in years?


November 11, 2011

Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd are a study in contrasting comedic styles. Murray is loose, anarchic, and insouciant; Aykroyd is precise, focused, and clean-cut. These traits define their big-screen presences: Aykroyd, while clearly a gifted comedian, looks prissy and out-of-place in movies. His mimicry and parody are well suited to TV, but in movies, to a certain extent, you’ve got to be yourself. And there just doesn’t seem to be that much there.

Murray, however, moves across the screen as though he owns it. He appears absolutely at ease and in control. Improvising wildly, he can make you laugh during movies that barely deserve to be released (to wit—although that seems an inappropriate word—Meatballs and Stripes, two low-budget box-office champs).

Murray and Aykroyd have teamed up for Ghostbusters, which Aykroyd started writing as a vehicle for himself and John Belushi a few years ago. Murray has stepped into the Belushi role, and he dominates the film; Aykroyd remains pretty much in the background throughout. Given their respective film personalities, this is just as it should be. Murray infuses the movie with as much of his anarchic spirit as possible.

They play a couple of parapsychologists (you know, people who study weird things) who, with fellow scientist Harold Ramis, set up shop for themselves after getting kicked out of their university research positions. They agree to track down any supernatural phenomena that may be bothering people.

It happens to be a good season for ghosts, so the boys are busy capturing the troubled spirits. When a musician (Sigourney Weaver) sees a demon of some kind in her refrigerator, she goes to the ghostbusters—but this is one ghost they can’t find. Murray, however, finds himself liking Weaver a lot (you can’t blame him, either).

It turns out Weaver’s apartment is the key to some crazy scheme that could bring about the end of the world. Well. Best not to go into that. Basically, the movie would like to provide a few good scares, a lot of laughs, and some special effects.

Scary it isn’t. And some of the special effects are good, but most are just okay. Funny is what the film needs to be, especially a heavily promoted (and very expensive: somewhere around $30 million) summer release.

On that score, Ghostbusters is a draw. The performers have some nice moments. But the producer-director, Ivan Reitman (he directed—yes—Meatballs and Stripes), has one of the feeblest senses of comedy I’ve ever seen. He has no instinct for basic moviemaking, for that matter; there’s no rhythm, no structure to the scenes. Bit after bit will build to a funny conclusion that doesn’t conclude. Ghostbusters is better than his previous efforts, but it’s still seriously hampered.

In the past, Reitman’s directorial successes (he produced Animal House, but that was directed by John Landis, who does understand comedy) have been carried on Bill Murray’s shoulders. Murray and company may carry Ghostbusters along too, at least for a while.

Murray himself may need either a strong director to harness his improvisatory talent, or maybe no director at all. His next film will sidestep comedic considerations: in his first serious role, he plays the spiritually minded central character of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. That’s the kind of bizarre casting that could lead to disaster or triumph, but probably nothing in between. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire Murray’s fondness for extremes.

First published in the Herald, June 9, 1984

Apparently I didn’t quite anticipate what a blockbuster this would become. But it is pretty blah overall, except for Murray, who summons up some classic moments. For the results of the Razor’s Edge experiment, see here.


January 14, 2011

After weeks of coming attractions, magazine teasers, TV commercials, and honest-to-goodness billboards, the movie seems a bit redundant. Yes, Twins is here at last, the film that dares to suggest a fraternal kinship between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.

The joke of the movie is basically that these two preposterous actors could possibly be brothers. Twins, yet. There have been worse excuses for movies, to be sure, and Twins plays out its concept at a reasonable level of good-natured fun.

The explanation for this strange set of siblings? A genetic experiment, an attempt to create an ideal human specimen. The baby that grew up to be Schwarzenegger got all the good genes and chromosomes, all the brains, sweetness and build. And the baby that grew up to be DeVito got—well, in his words, “all the crap that was left over.”

That’s how baby Julius, Schwarzenegger, was taken to a remote island and raised in isolation by an egghead professor. Baby Vincent, DeVito, was dumped in an L.A. orphanage and left to fend for himself. When Julius learns he has a twin, he leaves the island and ventures out into the world for the first time.

So the first hour of the movie consists of some familiar fish-out-of-water situations, as Schwarzenegger learns the ropes; how to eat junk food and kiss the girls, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, he’s trying to convince Vincent, a low-life hustler in debt to some mobsters, that they are really brothers. And Vince is marveling at this “230-pound virgin.”

The middle section of the film works the best, when the brothers take a road trip to New Mexico with girlfriends (Kelly Preston and Chloe Webb), and actually learn to like each other.

The mob plot keeps intruding; it wears the movie down a bit, and also overextends it. Producer-director Ivan Reitman organizes things in his usual slipshod fashion, but he seems to have a knack for knowing what people want (he directed the megahits Stripes and Ghostbusters). Reitman gets DeVito to do his rolling sleazeball routine, which is generally on-target. Schwarzenegger tackles his first (intentional) comedic performance with good cheer, though he might have been funnier if no one had told him to play this as comedy.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1988

Arnold and Ivan Reitman would make two more comedies, Kindergarten Cop and Junior; the latter, I really don’t need to tell you, is the choice for aficionados of the collaboration. The success of this film must also be held accountable for Sylvester Stallone’s forays into comedy, which did not work out as profitably as Schwarzenegger’s. I sound somewhat bored in this review, and I can’t blame me.