Director Jason Reitman chooses to take on what could be called a difficult juggling act in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”
He walks in the shoes of his father, director of the movie’s predecessors, in a film with a strong cast that’s considered a classic and still pays homage to it to entice that built-in audience while hopefully creating something new.
As daunting a task as that may seem, he pulls it off.
Let’s not pretend that’s a surprise. The younger Reitman has directed some memorable films that possess emotional heft. Think “Up in the Air,” probably the most depressing film about business travel, “Juno” and the satirical “Thank You For Smoking.”
Although “Afterlife” is certainly a different level with respect to genre and technical direction, it’s not difficult to appreciate Reitman’s influence here, especially with many of the characters in the film displaying dry senses of humor fit right in with a “Ghostbusters” film.
“Afterlife” answers a question that many a film fan may have posed — at least hypothetically. What happened to those guys? Well, they certainly never made it to “Ghostbusters III,” despite several reported attempts.
In the script written by Reitman and Gil Kenan, the question is answered for at least one cast member: Egon Spengler, portrayed by the late Harold Ramis, who died in 2014.
Spengler packed up, left his friends in New York City and settled in a farming community in Illinois. He came to be known as the “dirt farmer” because he didn’t plant or harvest any crops. To say he’s the town eccentric would be an understatement.
When he dies, the dirt farm is left to his daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon) and her children Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”) who couldn’t be less interested in living their lives in small town America — or so it seems.
After an eviction from their previous home, they don’t have much choice and, oddly, it’s in this sleepy farming town of Summerville where Phoebe begins to find her voice with some help from seismologist Gary (Paul Rudd) serving as a summer school science teacher in her school.
That’s not the only influence, however. Nerdy and awkward, it’s not difficult to see that she’s a Spengler from the sense of humor to the dark hair complemented by wire-rimmed glasses. Through a series of events, a spirit begins to direct her through the house, its secrets and Egon’s past.
Things from that past turn up, such as ghost-detecting gadgets, ghost traps and the iconic Cadillac hearse ECTO-1, which Trevor manages to get up and running. Yes, of course, the ghosts eventually show up as well, and once the strange happenings begin, Phoebe, Trevor and a couple of friends take it upon themselves to bust them.
The journey to get to that point is a little messy along the way, but Reitman understands the material he’s working with here and he handles it with care and reverence. The sense of humor is more subversive and subtle than uproarious — unless, of course, a ghost is on the screen. If one area exists where Reitman is too reverential, it comes to trotting out similar situations, much in the name of fan service. Some of that is to be expected, but some is far too predictable.
Where he really scores, however: the standout performance by Grace. She could have been Ramis’ female mini-me. Although the work the cast does in general proves appealing, hers goes beyond what should be expected and centering her character as Egon’s heir apparent proves inspiring.
Reitman crafts a love letter of appreciation to his father and homage to Ramis in managing to set up the “Ghostbusters” franchise up for the future. Ultimately, more films could prove ill-advised, but he at least piques the curiosity with this entry.