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Who You Gonna Recall?

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GHOSTBUSTERS II

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Ivan Reitman

Written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd

With Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis.

I always find it weird when, during a screen sequel, audience members cheer wildly in response to an action or utterance repeated from the original film. It is somewhat offensive when a sequel goes out of its way to offer up repetitions as a sop to ticket buyers. Indeed, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is little but a catalog of visual and aural motifs recycled from the previous films, apparently to the great joy of the customers lining up in record numbers to see exactly what they've seen before.

As every junior cynic likes to point out, it's the ease of repetition that stimulates the studios to make these facsimiles in the first place. But that only partly explains their existence. It doesn't address the audience's need to repeat a cinematic experience over and over again. Any hopes that the accessibility of old favorites on video would stanch the appetite for sequels have been blown away this summer. More people have VCRs than ever before, but there are also more part twos, threes, fives, and umpteens this summer than ever before.

Of course, some of the appeal is little more than the reassurance of brand names. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is only the most extreme example, the screen fairly bursting with highly marketable signs, insignia, and symbols. In fact, the Star Trek series is an elementary semiological wonderland whose crudity is only compensated for by its fecundity, an everlasting rondelet of reflexive remarks.

If a series lasts long enough, these repetitions become highly ritualized. For example, while James Bond's response to the zeitgeist must be flexible enough for him to become increasingly enlightened regarding women, he still must introduce himself with the sacred incantation: "My name is Bond. James Bond."

Of course the Bond films, strictly speaking, aren't sequels; they are parts of a series, though a highly formulaic one. Without getting all academic about it, the difference between a series and a sequel (or, to get perfectly befuddled, a series of sequels) is that a series is character-driven (even if the characters tend to do the same things over and over again) and sequels are event- or incident-driven (even if the events are performed by the same people over and over again). Thus, the Bonds and the Treks are more properly series; the Indiana Jones films sequels. The Dirty Harry movies make up a series; the Star Wars pictures are sequels.

Which brings us, in a dilatory way, to Ghostbusters II, the Certs of sequels. It certainly fits into the definition of a sequel: the repetition of incidents is almost breathtakingly precise. You know the plot of Ghostbusters? Well, without deviation, that's the plot of Ghostbusters II. Oh, the story is a little different, but the duplication of the essence of the action--New York is threatened by a cataclysmic infusion of demonic spirits--would do Xerox proud. If a character can no longer perform the function he or she performed in the original, because of ostensible "growth," then a new character is invented to pick up the slack. Thus, because Rick Moranis's nerdy lawyer--turned into a demon's slave in the original--has now matured enough to have a romantic interest, Peter MacNicol is hired to portray a comically accented Eastern European art curator who becomes a demon's slave.

Although Ghostbusters II absolutely follows the contours of the original, there is no feeling of lockstep. On the contrary, Dan Aykroyd, for example, appears far more natural, at ease, and spontaneous here than he has in any of the execrable vehicles he has decorated over the past few intervening years. Moranis takes his added, improved screen time to perform some pleasantly comic shtick, and MacNicol layers his own spacey humor into the mix.

Most incredible is Bill Murray's ability to appear simultaneously fresh and familiar. Despite all the principals, despite the presence of multimillion-dollar effects, Murray is the star of the show. He is the only character that the other characters talk about: before he makes his initial appearance, they speculate about what he'll be like. Even more to the point, when Murray finally appears it is in the context of a performance--hosting a cable interview show for psychics--that enables him to immediately employ his trademark deadpan smirk. Looking straight at the camera with his "can-you-believe-this-crap?" smirk, Murray establishes immediate rapport with the audience, fulfilling the contract they entered when they bought their tickets.

Under the steady, unhurried hand of director Ivan Reitman, Murray undertakes the real action of Ghostbusters II and confronts the increasingly muscular effects (muscle-bound by the time we get to the somewhat wheezy conclusion) and his colleagues' panicky reactions with the underplayed response that is the key to his humor and the movie's success. When Murray attempts this in more serious contexts--in the drama The Razor's Edge or the "message" comedy Scrooged--he comes across as smug or arrogant. But faced with the tumultuous silliness of renegade ghosts, that superiority projects as a sublimely calm rationalism.

I once read an interview with one of the directors of the Abbott and Costello films--it was either Arthur Lubin or Charles Lamont. He recalled that it was very easy to film the pair because they only required a script about half the average length. As the comedy team roamed the set and came across a prop, say a tree, one would remark to the other, "Let's do the tree bit here." Years of burlesque had left the two with an inexhaustible supply of routines they could insert into the action to fill out the movie. The relevance of the bit to the action was a function of the duo's kooky response to the world at large, their ability to comically transform reality into their own fantasy.

Murray--though he tends to reverse the process and transform fantasy into reality--has the same free-form approach to the silliness of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, sauntering to the action and doing "tree bits" here and there. It keeps him fresh and prevents him from falling into a too-serious reenactment of previously rendered actions. His character sits firmly at the center of the film, and makes it part of a series, rather than just another sequel.

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