It would be wonderful to report that Ghostbusters: Afterlife is great. Hell, it would be wonderful to report that it's nothing more, or less, than goofy dumb fun. But if you only smile four times (I counted) over the course of two hours, I'm not sure that qualifies as having fun.
Then again, writer/director Jason Reitman's supernatural comedy – a continuation, of course, of the series originated by Reitman's father Ivan and screenwriters Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis back in 1984 – wasn't designed for me. It maybe wasn't designed for you, either. It appears to be catering specifically to Ghostbusters super-fans: the ones who saw Ivan Reitnman's forerunner 10 times at the cineplex and eventually wore out their VHS copies; the ones who watched the animated spinoff and played the video games and gratefully collected anniversary editions on DVD and Blu-ray; the ones far too young to have seen the first movie, or its direct sequel, in theaters, but whose family members and/or friends helped turn them into zealots. (It should probably go without saying that most super-fans also revile the female-led reboot or, more insidiously, pretend it doesn't exist – a delusion shared by the Afterlife plotting.) These folks are less taken with Ghostbusters as a series than Ghostbusters as a mythology, and God love 'em, a number of them appeared to be at my screening on Friday.
They gasped and “Oooooo!”ed at the initial sights of a ghost trap and a proton pack and the Ectomobile. They applauded the inevitable returns of familiar faces. When one of our new leads was jailed and asked to use the phone, and the sheriff huffed “Who you gonna call?”, they laughed like they'd never before heard anything more riotous. (It's frightening to consider, but perhaps they hadn't.) These patrons evidently had the time of their lives at Afterlife, and I'm happy for them. If, however, you don't share a super-fan's bone-deep adoration for this franchise, Jason Reitman's love letter to all things ectoplasmic (and, by proxy, to his dad) might just leave you confused, and more than a little depressed.
It's not just that the movie isn't very funny, which it isn't, and isn't at all scary, which it isn't and doesn't need to be. It's that if you don't instinctively react with delight to Afterlife's many signifiers and shout-outs, it isn't in any way interesting. For the record, despite their diminishing returns, I enjoyed all three previous big-screen Ghostbusters – even 1989's underwhelming but admirably flaky followup and 2016's Reboot That Shall Not Be Named. Yet those latter releases, while insisting on at least mild familiarity with the 1984 comedy, still boasted major pleasures independent of the original. You could easily find laughs in Peter MacNicol's joyously incomprehensible accent in '89 and Kate McKinnon's hungry weirdness in '16 with no prior knowledge of the testy green blobs from the Reagan years. Afterlife, though, not only demands your knowledge of the series – it expects it. At one point, for seemingly no reason, the camera lingers for a full three seconds on a Twinkie in the front seat of a car. And if that image doesn't mean anything to you – personally, I have only the vaguest recollection of a Twinkie appearing anywhere in Ghostbusters – even those protracted three seconds can be confounding. Is the Twinkie going to play a significant role in the narrative? Is there a ghost hiding in the Twinkie? (Spoiler alerts: No and no.)
Not that it matters, but with Gil Kenan serving as Reitman's co-writer, Afterlife's story finds the daughter and grandchildren of Ramis' Egon Spengler moving into his dilapidated Oklahoma farmhouse after the former ghostbuster, as we're shown in the prelude, dies under mysterious, supernatural circumstances. (The new film is dedicated to Ramis, who passed away in 2014.) Daughter Callie, played by Carrie Coon, hates Egon for abandoning her as a child. Fifteen-year-old grandson Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) hates the clan's relocation to small-town Summerville, at least until he meets the sardonic 17-year-old cutie Lucky (Celeste O'Connor), whom he meets at her job serving burgers and fries at a drive-in restaurant. (Yes, she works at a neon-lit drive-in restaurant straight out of the 1950s. Her job requires her to wear roller skates. The original Ghostbusters isn't the only thing Reitman appears nostalgic for.) Egon's middle-school granddaughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), however, is an unrepentant science geek just like the grandpa she never met, and revels in learning that Summerville might be teeming with ghosts – one of whom, in that rambling farmhouse, appears to be the invisible presence of her late grandfather.
Mayhem, as it must, ensues, along with “hilarity” courtesy of a friendly teacher played by Paul Rudd and a podcasting pal of Phoebe's imaginatively nicknamed Podcast (Logan Kim). But long before we get to the fan-service returns of the gunner seat and the Gatekeeper and Keymaster and that nasty Sheena Easton lookalike Gozer, the tone of Afterlife feels all wrong. Reitman's credits include several sharp, character-based comedies (Juno, Up in the Air) and a few turgid melodramas (Labor Day, Men, Women & Children), but even though he's the son of Ivan, nothing about his past works has suggested that he'd be the right choice for the slapstick anarchy of a Ghostbusters picture. It turns out Reitman's résumé didn't mislead us.
While there are wisecracks aplenty, as well as a couple of satisfyingly bitchy one-liners, there's none of the go-for-broke nuttiness we associate with the series, and the dully pleasant, retro atmosphere – to say nothing of the casting of Finn Wolfhard – begins to suggest a super-sized, even-less-racy episode of Stranger Things, 1980s callbacks and all. (His teacher obviously not trying terribly hard, Rudd “educates” his summer-school charges with a VHS copy of Cujo.) Given how beloved this franchise has become for many young kids, I hardly expected anything along the lines of, say, Dan Aykroyd being fellated by a ghost the way he was in the original. I didn't, however, anticipate a work this toothless, with Coon and Rudd enjoying a diner date like sweethearts in the '50s, and Coon, with composer Rob Simonsen's schmaltzy score egging her on, welling up at long-delayed proof that Her Dad Really Loved Her.
Yet the more manic Afterlife gets, the dopier it gets, with events making less and less sense as the movie progresses. Why is Summersville law enforcement so dismissive of the possibility of supernatural beings when there are available YouTube clips of Aykroyd, Ramis, and Bill Murray battling them in 1984? (For that matter, why is Rudd the only person around who seems to remember that period in history?) Why has no one previously bothered to investigate the rash of unexplained earthquakes taking place in this burg? Why, when Rudd visits a Walmart late at night prior to the ghosts' returns, are there no other customers – or any employees? What, beyond showing up as a nod to the base, is Annie Potts' Janine Melnitz even doing there? (It's great seeing her, but when Potts told Coon that she occasionally stopped by the farmhouse to check in on Egon, there were so many questions. Did she stop in from Manhattan? Did Janine move to Oklahoma? Did she and Rick Moranis not wind up together?) These unanswered queries would all, of course, be mere irritations if Reitman's outing delivered in laughs and surprises. But for my money, I got zero of either. By the film's final third, the movie appeared to have totally forgotten that it was a comedy, and the closest thing I got to a surprise came as an end-credits cookie when I mistakenly thought that a presumed cameo from one of the original players had been cut from Afterlife entirely. (I guess I forgot that cameos are one of the reasons God made credit cookies.)
As mentioned at the start, though, I did smile four times: once at our Tribbles-like reintroduction to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and three times at intentionally corny jokes delivered, with a perfectly straight face, by Mckenna Grace, the only actor in Afterlife who provides a truly inspired comic portrayal. Her hair an unruly mop of black curls just like Ramis' (and Wolfhard's) and her eyeglasses – as Reitman makes laboriously clear – dead ringers for grandpa's, Phoebe, too, is required to tearfully emote and veer into melancholy in ways that occasionally derail the momentum. Yet Grace's acerbic, deadpan, mini-Egon routine is still a hoot, and you completely buy Phoebe's intellectual curiosity and loneliness and burgeoning empowerment; she's a nerd who completely embraces her nerdiness, and in the process, makes them/us look cooler than hell. Dyed-in-the-wool fans may well revere this Ghostbusters. If its unstoppable sequels wisely keep Grace at their center, I might one day to forced to reevaluate it.
Given that director Reinaldo Marcus Green's sports saga is about the training and amazing gifts of eventual tennis pros Venus and Serena Williams, you'd be right to expect King Richard to feature a lot of serves. But perhaps the most satisfying thing Green's release serves up is something that I'd argue we maybe haven't seen since Erin Brockovich: an expansive, meaty, capitalized Movie Star performance in an accessible, crowd-pleasing adult drama with considerable artistic bona fides. If my assessment is correct, that means an entire generation has grown up without experiencing the sort of cineplex thrill that accompanies watching Julia Roberts own the big screen in 2000 or, now, Will Smith owning it in King Richard. Naturally, Smith's movie debuted on HBO Max the very same day it hit theaters, which means plenty of viewers who catch the flick on their TVs or phones still won't get that thrill. Welcome, belatedly, to 2021.
But really, welcome to the early-to-mid 1990s, as Green's formulaic yet heartfelt rendering follows the aggressively unconventional Richard Williams (Smith) and his equally formidable, eternally patient wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) as they lead pre-teens Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) from humble beginnings in Compton, California, to the intimidating pro circuit in Florida. If you're acquainted with the Williams' success story, nothing in King Richard will likely astonish you, and if you're even slightly familiar with the tenets of rags-to-riches sports dramas, very little will probably come close to surprising you. (This is one instance, however, where my inherent sports ignorance happily paid off, considering I had no idea what to expect from Venus' climactic match against Spanish sensation Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. Discovering what happened during that face-off knocked me on my ass.) Yet this is one of the rare Hollywood offerings in its genre, at least in recent years, in which no-frills sincerity and inspirational purpose actually do make up for a fundamental lack of suspense.
Yes, the Compton sequences feature guns and child-welfare visits and all five Williams sisters forced to sleep in the same room. (Venus' and Serena's less well-defined siblings are played, charmingly, by Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Layla Crawford, and Daniele Lawson.) But they're also filled with loving exuberance and unanticipated biographical touches, such as Richard demanding that his daughters watch Cinderella – and, if he insists, watch it a second time – to learn about the virtues of humility. Yes, Venus' and Serena's early scenes on the ITF Junior Circuit boast (white) managers unconvinced about the girls' career possibilities, as well as disapproving (white) parents who, as opposed to Richard and Brandy, mercilessly badger their children for their failures on the court. But because of Richard's practiced amiability, such moments are flinty and funny as often as they're upsetting, and they lead to some priceless lines in screenwriter Zach Baylin's script. (“You're the most stubborn person I've met in my life,” says Tony Goldwyn's coach to Smith's Richard. “And I coach McEnroe.”)
Green's entire movie seems to operate, winningly, on this kind of “yes/but” principle. Yes, there's a tough yet tenderhearted coach … but he's played by Jon Bernthal, with a Ted Lasso mustache, as an endearing goofus who almost never gets the last word with Richard, and the one time he does, he nearly collapses in awe and relief. Yes, Ellis plays the genre's de rigueur supportive yet fretful wife and mom … but the performer adds so many specific levels of warmth, ruefulness, and anger that it's like this traditionally stock figure has never existed on-screen before. Yes, in its presentation, Green's film looks like any number of well-made TV movies … but editor Pamela Martin's cutting is sharper than we're used to, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit's photography is certainly richer than we're used to. And yes, Smith may be enacting his umpteenth lead who thinks he's smarter than anyone else in the room … but … . Okay, there's no real “but” there. That's who Richard sees himself as, and that opinion doesn't much change.
But. Smith is so gloriously in command of the character, his hunched and relentless physicality, his jutting jaw, his verbal idiosyncrasies, and his almost viscerally powerful love for his children that you couldn't take your eyes off him even if he or Green wanted you to. While the actor is frequently very funny here, there were times in which Smith made me chuckle just through the chutzpah of Richard's bravado – much the way Roberts did as Erin Brockovich – and his emotions are so close to the surface that when Richard yelled, I winced, and when he cried, I got a lump in my throat the size of Delaware. Consistently engaging and honestly moving, King Richard isn't merely everything it promises to be. It's a stronger version of everything you hope it'll be.
tick … tick … Boom!
Sadly for we theatre fans, it's not unusual to see a disappointing or downright crummy movie version of a stage musical you love. (My own list would include Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, The Producers, Sweet Charity, A Chorus Line, Guys & Dolls, the recent Dear Evan Hansen … . Can I stop now?) What's incredibly rare is to see a first-rate film adaptation of a musical you're not crazy about, which, I'm happy and a little astounded to say, is what I got in director Lin-Manuel Miranda's new Netflix presentation of tick … tick … Boom!
Best known as the theatre piece that composer, lyricist, and book writer Jonathan Larson premiered years before Rent – Larson performed solo productions of the show between 1990 and his 1996 passing, after which playwright David Auburn turned it into a three-character musical that debuted in 2001 – tick … tick … Boom! just isn't my cup of tea. Granted, being introduced to the material in my 40s probably didn't help. But while I find a number of Larson's songs agreeable and certainly can't discount the craftsmanship involved in their composition, this tale of a gifted, frustrated, wannabe artiste (Larson himself) struggling with his nonexistent theatrical career on the eve of his 30th birthday still strikes me as too self-pitying, too navel-gazing, too clichéd, too whiny … . Too Rent, if all of its characters were compressed into one thwarted 29-year-old's body. Whatever your thoughts on tick … tick … Boom!, or on Rent, it was undeniably poignant knowing that Larson would never live to experience the acclaim he so desperately craved, as he unexpectedly died of an aortic dissection the morning that Rent was to have its first off-Broadway preview. Yet sympathy and admiration aren't interchangeable, and I worried that, in his feature-film directing debut, Miranda – the Hamilton auteur who would seem, in theory, the ideal person to helm this adaptation – would too frequently ignore the qualities we love about him and lean too heavily into the pathos and tragic “If only we appreciated Jonathan in his time!” irony of the Larson musical.
There's still a bit too much of that here, at least for me. Although screenwriter and Dear Evan Hansen scribe Steven Levenson has eliminated much of the annoying egoism of tick … tick … Boom!'s “fictional” Jonathan (Andrew Garfield) and gives the guy far more emotional comeuppance, the character remains maddeningly self-centered, and it's disconcerting, to say the least, that the AIDS diagnoses of two of his closest friends are primarily viewed as added injustices in Larson's world. (We never even learn the fate of one of them – a character whose welfare, I'd argue, we wind up caring about even more than Jonathan's.) And Levenson and Miranda can't resist, through voice-over narration at the beginning and end, reminding us how Larson “changed musical theatre forever” with Rent, even though many of us might beg to differ. (His work did, however, make it acceptable for New Yorkers to spend hundreds of dollars to watch people living and singing in poverty … though I suppose the same could be said for the team behind Les Miz.)
Yet even with the largely irresistible, incessantly hard-working Garfield coming off as less of a genius composer than a particularly eager puppy forever licking our faces, Miranda's tick … tick … Boom! is still pretty beautiful. Miranda's playfulness as a lyricist is mirrored in his mostly exceptional, brazenly theatrical stagings of many of the musical's best numbers: the late-night-in-a-living-room bonhomie of “Boho Days”; the dichotomy between past-life squalor and present-life indulgence in “No More”; the sardonic play-acting performance of “Therapy” that's reminiscent of the ventriloquist/dummy routine in Chicago's “We Both Reached for the Gun.” While Alexandra Shipp, as Jonathan's prototypical long-suffering girlfriend, isn't asked to do much beyond look gorgeous and sing beautifully (and she handily accomplishes both requirements), the marvelous Robin de Jesús headlines a rather remarkable team of stage veterans that includes Judith Light as Jonathan's agent, Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens as aspiring performers, and Bradley Whitford, who, as Stephen Sondheim, nails the legend's quizzical brow and squint.
And with the “Sunday” sequence, which turns into Miranda's unquestionable visual and emotional show-stopper, the director hauls out an ensemble of living icons to make musical-theatre lovers wet themselves. I won't give away the goods for those who want to be surprised, but if you own original- or revival-cast recordings of Hamilton, Sunday in the Park with George, Kiss Me Kate, Cabaret, The Full Monty, Rent, West Side Story, and a bunch of others, you're sure to recognize someone you adore. Standing ovations have become depressingly commonplace at stage musicals, but if I weren't so happily reclined on my couch during tick … tick … Boom!, I would certainly have considered the idea for this filmed version of one. Nicely done, Mr. Miranda. Give us an Oscar-worthy rendition of Cats and I'll be a fan for life.
When it debuted at our Davenport cineplex three weekends ago, I dreaded the prospect of having to sit through Red Notice, an action comedy that starred Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot, and one that looked so incessantly by-the-numbers I was pretty certain I had already seen it based not on its preview, but on its poster. But the day before morosely venturing out to catch writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber's tale of a bullet-headed FBI agent and two mischievous art thieves, I learned that its November 5 cineplex debut would be followed by a November 12 premiere on Netflix. Huzzah!, I thought. The perfect excuse to skip it! And so I did, not imagining that the film would still be in area release on the November 12 weekend, nor, for reasons passing understanding, the weekend after that. Finally, looking to kill some time before last night's new episode of Succession, I broke down and watched the movie on Netflix, where, 10 days after its arrival, Thurber's release was ranked as the streaming service's most popular title. So after all of my initial misgivings about the film, I am now completely up-to-speed on what Red Notice actually is, and I can't help but ask: What the f--- is going on with the popularity of this thing?!
I know that people enjoy watching movies that feature actual movie stars – even stars, such as Gadot and (these days) Reynolds, who are really only popular when they wear superhero costumes. But how on earth did word-of-mouth not immediately curdle on this deliriously retrograde, unfunny, unexciting pile of content masquerading as a film? We're used to the convention of male leads in action comedies initially detesting one another and inevitably liking, or at least tolerating, one another. But I'm not sure I've ever before seen two leads who grimace through their repartee with as much furious disregard as Johnson and Reynolds convey. It doesn't feel like “in character” hatred, either. It feels like the actors literally can't stomach one another. Both appear utterly miserable in ways they never before have on-screen, and it's easy to imagine their backstory: Johnson loathes Reynolds for getting to be the “funny” one; Reynolds loathes Johnson – one of the film's producers – for strapping him to a somehow-even-lousier (potential) franchise than the Hitman's Bodyguard series he's already stuck with. Incredibly, their beyond-uncomfortable dynamic made me feel both anxious and exhausted through the full two hours (!) of this piffle, and was so overpowering that I could barely sustain the energy to abhor the tired wisecracks, ludicrous plotting, nonsensical twists, and Reynolds' praise for Gadot's crooning of “Downtown,” after which he said, “She's a great singer.” (She's not.) Red Notice is mind-bogglingly dismal and its popularity unfathomable. I no doubt shouldn't have bothered with the movie at all, but once I did, I needed to admit to someone that I watched it, and saying so in a review had to suffice. I don't have a therapist.