Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Thirty-One

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#31 — Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)
Sigourney Weaver is a well-respected actress with three Oscar nominations to her credit for a trio of performances that are wildly diverse. Beyond the official accolades, Weaver can point to fine work in heady, admirable films. Many may reasonably name Death and the Maiden or The Ice Storm as the high point on the line graph that charts her acting prowess. For me, though, Weaver was never better than she was as Dana Barrett in the smash hit Ghostbusters.

Set aside the temptation to dismiss the film as a frothy, insignificant commercial success and consider what Weaver has to do in the movie. In midst of a storyline that sparks off the opposing excesses of supernatural wonders and comic exaggeration, Weaver is called upon to provide contrasting normalcy. She needs to make both a haunted refrigerator and a delightfully broad Rick Moranis character seem believable through her perfectly tempered reactions to them. Then, her grounded place among the wild fictions fully established, Dana Barrett becomes possessed by a bulky canine demon, which necessitates Weaver not only shifting gears but actually replacing the very engine of her performance. Allowed to play in the fantastical world she’d previously observed, Weaver delivers a wickedly inventive turn.

The whole of Ghostbusters is deceptive that way. It’s more accomplished that it may first appear. It’s an especially fortuitous convergence of elements that probably shouldn’t work well together, drawing out the rich, giddily ingenious best of everyone involved, beginning with the unlikely transformation of co-writer Dan Aykroyd’s actual fascination with the sorts of crackpot mysteries that filled out the episode list of the old TV show In Search Of… into a bright romp that is spirited in every way. Indeed, Aykroyd’s personal conviction give the story and the entire film a gleeful innocence, an unassuming comfort. Surely, New York City could be overrun by ghouls and a marauding destroyer could manifest as a spokescharacter for a sugary snack. Forget the cynicism; no human being would stack books like that.

Ivan Reitman directs the film with an unerring sense of balance. It is slick and smooth, blithely delivering bustling scenes and expertly introducing fresh complications at every turn. The most glaring flaw of Reitman’s across his career is a tendency to let him films get hopelessly muddled, either because he’s working with more ideas that he can manage or because he’s shoving the narrative full of mushy cotton because he has too few. Ghostbusters is a different beast. There’s barely a wasted moment, no significant character the gets short shrift. Annie Potts is only onscreen for a few minutes as receptionist Janine Melnitz, and yet the character has a more vivid inner life than the protagonists in any number of major films.

And then there’s Bill Murray, imbuing the role of Dr. Peter Venkman with a sardonic intelligence and a loose ambivalence. Surrounded by chaos, Murray is the epitome of cool. Even the fresh information that the nuclear reactor on his back could held trigger the collapse of all reality if the connected firing device with the accuracy of an old-timey shotgun is mildly misdirected can’t significantly ruffle his unflappable demeanor. To a degree, the seeds of the truly great Murray performances that would start arriving a few years later are visible here. He was a wary shark in early roles, but there’s a charmed ease he brings to this performance that’s transformational. The success of this film gave Murray the security and authority to spend the rest of his career doing whatever the hell he wanted to, but he’s already playing it like a man complete unafraid, as if the pending freedom had already soaked into his aura.

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