Poking at Awards: "Literary Authors Slumming in Genre"
Friday Five: 5 Best Non-Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Games from the 90s

Film 101: Ghostbusters, Wayne's World & Spaceballs

Ghostbusters10. Ghostbusters (1984)

11. Wayne’s World (1992)

12. Spaceballs (1987)

Seven years separate Just Like Heaven and Friends with Kids, while there’s only a six year difference between the original release dates for Ghostbusters and Wayne’s World – and yet, the latter two feel a lifetime apart, and the former two forgettably similar.

The obvious reason for this is that I saw both of today’s films when I was a kid – Ghostbusters when I was young, maybe six or seven, and Wayne’s World when I was 12. Ghostbusters I saw on some crummy VHS tape; Wayne’s World I remember seeing in the cinema. And both were a big, big deal. Both were quoted endlessly, by everyone, for years; I practiced my Zuul voice and even today, occasionally, suggest that various friends ought to party on.

And I probably haven’t seen either in 20 years. And y’know what? They both hold up. (We'll talk about Spaceballs presently.)

Now, on the one hand, I know I’m laying myself open to accusations of nostalgia viewing; both these films were fucking huge when I was a kid, and extricating them from even my relatively pop-culture-free childhood and adolescence is impossible. But I like to think I’ve got the ability to at least make a reasonable effort to separate my historical experiences with the films from my recent viewings. I mean, really. Ghostbusters came out three decades ago. Wayne’s World is twenty-two years old. I’m moving into middle fucking age. People have lived entire lifetimes in the thirty years since Ghostbusters was released. I mean, god, I should fucking hope I’ve got some perspective.

Yeah, I probably don’t. Let’s get to it.

EctoplasmGhostbusters is very, very much a product of its time. There’s a lot of casual sexism and jokes at the expense of teeny little Rick Moranis’ teeny little stature. Bill Murray’s character is, not to put too fine a point on it, a creeper. He hits on women who aren’t interested, he won’t take no for an answer, and he improbably gets the girl at the end, despite the fact that they’ve spent about five minutes of screentime together where she’s not a) trying to get him out of her hair, b) asleep, c) possessed by an ancient demonic spirit, or d) a giant dog. Also, she (while possessed) apparently has sex with teeny little Rick Moranis (also possessed) which is played for laughs, which is gross and horrible. Oh, and have I mentioned the ghost blowjob?

But then there’s the rest of the film, this awesome scrappy little comedy about these awesome scrappy (completely insane) guys who start a company to, well, bust ghosts. Murray and writer Dan Ackroyd are, in Ghostbusters, pretty much at their comedic peak; their chemistry is weird and utterly undeniable and totally adorable. And the movie is fun and energetic and funny, and the effects, while dated, aren’t 1997-era CG, so they still pretty much work; the cards flipping out of the card catalogue at the beginning, and the eggs popping and frying on the counter both freaked me out as a kid and delight me now as an adult. The mythology is silly but strong enough to sustain the plot, and the world – a haunted 80s New York – feels lived in and believable.

As scrappy as Ghostbusters is, it’s not half as scrappy as Wayne’s World, which looks like it cost about $15 to film. (it had a $20 million budget and was shot over 34 days, according to Wikipedia.) An ongoing short sketch from Saturday Night Live, improbably stretched out to 95 minutes (and a pretty decent sequel), there’s no reason why Wayne’s World should have been the success it was in 1992, or why it remains successful today. Its pop culture references are incredibly dated and its plot is somehow both paper-thin and completely ridiculous. And yet.

And yet. Like Ghostbusters, the world feels lived-in and loved; the film’s opening sequences are a pretty good approximation of the aimless, restless life of a young adult in a small Midwestern city. Wayne and Garth are, at the end of the day, two kind of dorky guys just going about their kind of dorky lives (which, honestly, is pretty much all that’s going on in Ghostbusters, too.) They drift around at night with their friends going to gigs and parties, they run their cable access tv program on a shoestring budget with the help of their friends, they think about girls, they play hockey in the street. They also get bought out and have to do a little low-impact fighting to retain control of the integrity they never knew they cared about, much less possessed.

And, like Ghostbusters, the film’s greatest strength is the chemistry between its leads, also at their comedic peaks (Austin Powers has not aged particularly well, and the less said about Dana Carvey’s solo career the better). But the film is helped by a strong female lead, Tia Carrere committing fully to her surprisingly cool character, and Rob Lowe playing the sleazy end of his range. Rob Lowe’s character here is pretty much Rob Lowe’s character everywhere, as I’ve suggested, but Carrere’s character is legitimately awesome, being smart, well-grounded, autonomous and nobody’s fool. More than two decades later, we still don’t see enough female characters like her.

Stacy wayne's worldAn aside about Laura Flynn Boyle’s ‘psycho hose-beast’ ex-girlfriend: yikes. The character’s a comedy staple – the ex who can’t or won’t get over it – but the character is pathetically developed and lazily written, and is a jarringly grating element in an otherwise pretty decent film.

But Wayne’s World has something else going for it, too; beyond all the jokes about vomiting and erections there’s some surprisingly sophisticated and subtle humor at work, both in the script and in the performances. The actual end of the world may not be in play as it is in Ghostbusters, but the film is about two young guys learning their own personal limits; losing your best friend, your girlfriend, and your cable access show all at the same time would feel pretty catastrophic, and Wayne’s World never suggests that Wayne has any reason to feel anything other than devastated by the film’s events. He bounces back, in keeping with his character, but the stakes are just as high for him as they could be without someone’s life being on the line.

While, as mentioned, both films do have problems (amazingly enough, in their depictions of women!), they’re not so overwhelming as to make the films feel like a waste of time.

Which brings me to Spaceballs, Mel Brooks’ 1987 sendup of Star Wars. I fucking loved this film when I was nine – I mean, c’mon. There’s a villain named Pizza the Hutt! And he’s made of pizza! But, holy shit, does it not withstand the test of time. The performances are phoned in, the effects are incredibly cheap (Spaceballs had a $22.5 million budget, so that’s at least understandable; Ghostbusters’ budget was $30 million.) and the humor is just… not… there. I mean, really; there’s a joke about Princess Vespa, from the planet Druidia, is a spoiled Druish Princess. Geddit?


PizzathehuttAll the warm memories in the world couldn’t save this hamfisted hunk of junk. Where Ghostbusters and Wayne’s World feature strong performances and tap into some reasonably timeless concerns (and jokes), Spaceballs relies on yelling, flailing, and lazy spoofing over plot, character development and comedy. And dick jokes! So many dick jokes. Stupid comedy isn’t necessarily the problem – lazy comedy is. And there are plenty of stupid, even lazy jokes in Ghostbusters and Wayne’s World, but there’s enough beyond that to give the films real staying power. When a film is all stupid and lazy jokes, however – like Spaceballs – well, no matter how funny that film may have been 27 years earlier, there’s nothing left to sustain it, nearly three decades on. Too bad.