Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, William Atherton, Ernie Hudson, Jennifer Runyon
Written by: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 107
Date: 06/07/1984

Ghostbusters (1984)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Bill Murray Busts Us Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After looking at some of the great work actor Bill Murray has done in the last decade, I got the urge to go back and watch one of his earliest successes, Ghostbusters (1984), a film that I've seen at least ten times. Even when I first saw it in high school, I sensed that Murray was the best thing in the movie, and not the special effects, and certainly not the popular and dreadful theme song by Ray Parker Jr.

Murray managed to successfully transplant his wise-ass character from Saturday Night Live into the movies, something that many SNL actors have failed to do. He made quite a few movies around the character, like Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), all big hits. Ghostbusters was the biggest hit of them all, though, seemingly because of the special effects that attracted younger audiences and repeat viewings. Murray is enjoyable in the movie, but he really didn't develop his acting chops until much later. Tellingly, he used his clout from Ghostbusters to make his dream project, The Razor's Edge released later the same year. But Murray tried to play it with his smart-ass character and it failed.

Murray worked so well in Ghostbusters because he seemed to be operating slightly outside of it, winking at us from the sidelines. While the other actors Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts, seemed to be completely caught up in playing their characters and acting out the story, Murray was always bemused by the proceedings. He would always say something inappropriate for the moment, and because of its inappropriateness, we would laugh. For example, when Weaver is possessed by the spirit of "Goser," Murray has nothing but wisecracks, "what a lovely singing voice you must have," and so on. In fact, Weaver's lines seem purposely crafted as set-ups for his remarks.

To go one further, Murray's lines are crafted to jump out during the suspense sequences as well. Our adrenaline is (supposedly) rushing around during the final battles with ghosts and marshmallow men, so when Murray pops out with something strange like "mother pus bucket," we can't help but laugh. Murray could even go so far as to look directly into the camera to let us know that he is on our side, "isn't all this ridiculous?" he asks us.

Of course, this speaks more about the writing of Aykroyd and Ramis and the direction of Ivan Reitman than about Murray's acting. But it does say something about Murray's screen presence, his ability to control a scene and still be involved in it. At this early point in his career, he was not the skilled actor that he is today. That's clear. But he was developing a powerful persona that undeniably helped him to perfect an acting technique. Just the fact that Aykroyd and Ramis wrote the script around him instead of themselves confirms this idea.

The one thing the movie misses out on is a kind of Marx Brothers camaraderie between Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis. Because Murray is acting on a different plane from the other two, they never really connect in a comic way. Aykroyd and Ramis, like Weaver, set up straight lines for Murray to launch from but that's it. Interestingly, Aykroyd wrote Ghostbusters a few years earlier with the intention of playing it with his pal John Belushi, who died in 1982. (He also wrote Spies Like Us during this time.) It must have been seriously re-written to fit Murray's character, but I suspect that the original version contained more give-and-take between Aykroyd and what would have been the Belushi character.

Ghostbusters was one of the first expensive blockbusters made in the 80's, a tradition that sadly continues to this day. Most directors don't know how to handle them, and Ivan Reitman seems more comfortable with the comedy scenes than with the special effects, which are sadly dated now (witness the claymation "dog" that chases Ramis through Central Park). Also, Ghostbusters was one of the first movies to be popular on cable and in VCRs, then a brand-new technology. But the movie was shot in Cinemascope and it was also one of the first to suffer from pan-and-scan. Now, thankfully, the movie has been released in a letterbox version on both laserdisc and DVD.

There was a sequel, Ghostbusters II, in 1989 that's hardly worth mentioning. Though it seemed to motivate Murray into trying new things, because afterward, he gave us his first layered and nuanced performances in movies like Quick Change (1990), Groundhog Day (1993), and Rushmore (1998).

I had a good giggle watching Ghostbusters again, and I recommend checking it out for an evening of turn-your-brain-off entertainment. For all its expense and special effects, though, my favorite scene is still: Aykroyd: "Hey! Where do these stairs go?" Murray: "They go up."

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