Gene Siskel had a famous test he supposedly applied to every movie he saw: is this more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch? I cannot recall the last movie to fail that test as emphatically as the new Ghostbusters, which scoops up a most enviable collection of quick-witted comic actors and leaves them stranded in... well, in a Ghostbusters movie, which isn't just a problem because it's a remake, though of course all remakes are sins in the eyes of an angry God. This particular remake is thankfully not too straitjacketed by its obvious devotion to the 1984 original, at least not at the level of plot - at the level of gigantic winking in-jokes, it is positively embalmed with that devotion. Particularly the no fewer than seven, count 'em seven cameos of humans and ghosts from the first movie (arguable cameo #8 is that wonderful old Hook & Ladder 8), each and every one of which throws on the emergency brakes and massacres the momentum and comic energy of the film for no other reason so that director Paul Feig can shake our shoulder and point and stage whisper, "Look it's Bill Murray CAN YOU BELIEVE I got to direct Bill Murray?!?". Apologies to Murray for singling him out like that. It is in fact Dan Aykroyd's cameo that is the absolute worst, stopping the movie so abruptly that it threatens to give the unprepared viewer impact trauma. Annie Potts is a close second, and I say that as one of the world's few natural-born Annie Potts fanboys.

Anyway, the problem with Ghostbusters beyond being a remake is that it's an effects-heavy popcorn movie, and Feig's loosey-goosey "let's riff our way through the story and see what we get" approach to directing actors is a poor fit. Nor does it suit the eminently well-honed riffing skills of Feig's muse Melissa McCarthy (the director's fourth consecutive picture in which she appears in a major role), nor the Saturday Night Live training of Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, filling the other three lead roles. Of course, Ghostbusters '84 was an effects-heavy popcorn movie that ended up getting most of its personality through improv, so in principle this could have worked, but for one important difference: Ghostbusters '84 had Murray's open and transparent contempt for the project fueling an act of demolition that remade the whole thing as a shaggy, snarky hang-out comedy in his own image. Ghostbusters '16 has several people who obviously take the scenario seriously and treat it with respect, and the results are largely middling, erring on the side of "good enough because it's not like there's going to be a better wide-release comedy anytime soon". And at its very worst, it's still not nearly as implacably useless as Ghostbusters II, in which Murray's contempt only fueled his own self-evident onscreen boredom.

Anyway, the hook is as pure high-concept as it ever has been: three fringe scientists open a company to hunt and trap ghosts bothering Manhattan; are laughed at as kooks; eventually save the day when a hellgate is opened. The new script, by Kate Dippold & Feig, adds a little bit more interpersonal flexibility than the first film witnessed: now, there's a bit of a traumatic past between Dr. Erin Gilbert (Wiig), on the verge of securing tenure at Columbia and driven to being an almost intolerable stick in the mud as a result, and Dr. Abby Yates (McCarthy), on the verge of cracking the science that will allow her to detect and contain paranormal manifestations. Many years earlier, when Erin was a fun enthusiast, they co-wrote a book with the winning title Ghosts of the Past: Both Literally and Figuratively, and it has resurfaced just in time to embarrass her and ruin her career, so she tracks Abby down to bully her into submerging it again. Instead, she gets swept up in the ghost hunting antics of Abby and her new, thoroughly unhinged colleague and tech guru, Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon); later on they accept MTA worker Patty Tolan (Jones) into their sphere, for the wealth of knowledge of New York history she provides.

For a movie that's content to outlive its earned running time, at 116 minutes (though at this point in his career, it would almost be disappointing for a Paul Feig film to arrive without a bloated running time), it's a little strange how quickly Ghostbusters races through its first act, which contains its richest material: Wiig and McCarthy are great at being prickly frenemies, and it's disappointing how quickly Erin flips into 100% enthusiasm and comradeship with the other two. One would think that at least some lingering resentment at them for costing her job (rightly or wrongly) might have crept into the movie, but nothing. Anyway, one does not review the movie that didn't get made, even when it's sitting there so obviously wishing that it had been.

Ghostbusters pretty quickly reveals that it's going to be two different movies in alternation. One is the story of Erin and Abby struggling to run a business in the face of social mockery, while stuck in a world apparently made 100% out of incompetents, and it's pretty damn good. This is the best work for neither of them - Wiig in particular hardly ever gets anything interesting to do - but there's a warmth to their interactions and reasonably snapping timing in their banter, with their two co-stars coming in to provide odd shifts in the energy that keep it from devolving into mild sitcom japing. One can bemoan the fact that none of these performers is being well-served at the level of character (and Jones in particular suffers for having the simply awful role of a streetwise non-scientist who yells and is irrepressibly sassy, and this is surely not because of her skin color, because this is the "progressive" Ghostbusters. But for real, the fact that they've come up with a more regressive African-American character than the one in the 32-year-old Ghostbusters is just really fucking special, though at least Patty intersects with the plot more directly than Ernie Hudson's Winston Zeddmore did in 1984) without having to deny that there is real pleasure in watching them clear hurdles that they were never in any real danger of tripping over. Talent is talent, even when it's being ill-used, and while there's nothing not tired about Erin's two characteristics (she is officious and lacks a sense of humor; she also can't stop drooling over the firm's idiot hunk receptionist, played by Chris Hemsworth in a game, wholly terrific small role - after finding him resolutely charmless as Thor, I'd never have guessed he had such good comic timing and fearless silliness hiding inside of him), Wiig flings herself into making them as rich and funny as can be managed.

The standout, beyond question, is McKinnon, who has taken it upon herself to star in some completely unique movie that apparently resides only in her head. There's something leonine about her performance, the way she stares with undisguised predatory glee at things around her before pouncing at them: props (ghost-hunting guns and proton packs and all, which she openly eroticises; more mundane objects, which she grabs like an alien in a human suit attempting to learn how our culture operates on the fly), and certainly her co-stars. There's never the sense, as there was with Murray, that McKinnon hates the film she's in; but she's convincingly suggested how Holtzmann might, if not "hate" her colleagues, at least find them much more fun as the victims in an elaborate series of practical jokes without punchlines for which Holtzmann herself will be the only audience. The performance is at times nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying, and times its the most inspired comedy of 2016 to date, something like a Frank Tashlin cartoon anarchist bubbling up inside the ironic, wry bubble of modern improv-heavy comedy of the sort Feig has practiced all his career, which has no idea what to do with a proper anarchist. And indeed, while Ghostbusters '84 ended up reshaping itself around Murray's similarly greedy and wonderful "no, this is what I'm doing now" performance, Ghostbusters '16 always stands a step back from McKinnon, like it's afraid she'll electrocute it.

Anyway, as I said, that's all the first movie, about the characters and their likable (or in Patty's case, horrifying) quirks. The second movie is a piece of shit effects-heavy orgy of noise and unpersuasive, shiny CGI, and it almost completely takes over as Ghostbusters enters the final act. Obviously, action can be funny - entire careers have been based on the idea that action can be funny. But Ghostbusters carefully segregates its action sequences from its comic sequences, and that slaughters its momentum and much of the goodwill it has built up. Wiig is totally at sea, and McCarthy barely hangs on as a generic quip-dispenser that anybody with halfway decent comic timing could have been. The colors are fun; otherworldly blues and greens that leave the film feeling absolutely more like a cartoon than a movie with humans, but which anyway give it more visual personality than the vast majority of popcorn movies and their addiction to washing everything in grey. Still, the only thing tolerable in the last 30 minutes of the movie, and therefore the only thing that leads me to nudge Ghostbusters into "yeah, it's pretty much okay" territory rather than "nah, it's pretty mediocre" territory, is McKinnon again, who is at least able to turn her big action sequence into a weird futurist ballet of video game violence and oddly-angled limbs.

Anyway, the worst of the film is pretty much generic summertime pap of the sort that we should all be completely used to by now, along with some exceptionally grating product placement (there's a Pringles gag that made me want to claw the flesh off my face; the last time there was a "but it's a comedy so if we build it into a gag, it will be okay, right?" placed product that made me as intensely unhappy was that godawful Heineken bit in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), and a few lines that don't play. And the best of the film, outside of McKinnon, is mostly warm but not quite funny bits played by actors likable enough that chuckles will do to keep us invested, if belly laughs are not to be offered. It's a very neutral and profoundly unexceptional thing, but likable enough; likable enough for what, I can't quite say, but wide release summer comedies that even have that going for them are sufficiently rare that I consider myself happy to have seen it.