I’m back to typing a blog entry under lockdown, more or less. Record snowfall has swept through half the continental US, which is more than enough to shut down the entire famously snow-phobic city of Portland for a few days. So let’s see if there’s anything on streaming right now.

What’s this? My favorite composer Bear McCreary has a new project on Netflix? And it’s written/directed by Christopher Landon, the guy who previously brought us Freaky and the Happy Death Day movies (all of which were also scored by McCreary)? And it stars David Harbour just as he’s hitting the peak of his career? Sounds intriguing! Let’s see what we’ve got with We Have a Ghost.

We open with the arrival of the Presley family. Our de facto protagonist is the young teenage Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who’s quickly established as a socially awkward loner who just wants to listen to classic rock music all day. We’ve also got Fulton (Niles Fitch), Kevin’s preening self-centered asshole big brother; Frank (Anthony Mackie), who’s got a nasty habit of moving his family around after every failed business venture and pyramid scheme; and Melanie (Erica Ash), the shrill and overbearing matriarch.

This is the family that gets suckered into buying a haunted house and you can already tell we’ve got problems.

To be clear, this is hardly a film without merit. The ghost in question is Ernest, here played by David Harbour, and the guy is acting his ass off here. In fact, I think it says a lot about the movie that the funniest, best developed, most sympathetic character in the entire film is the one with virtually no dialogue whatsoever.

I will make a minor exception for Joy Yoshino (Isabella Russo), the next-door neighbor quickly established as a best friend/love interest for Kevin. She’s introduced spray-painting her cell number off a men’s room stall so her classmates won’t harass her with racist text messages. Joy is often a bit too loud and abrasive for her own good, but she is at least competent and assertive and I genuinely like her attitude.

Alas, the supporting cast also features Tig Notaro. A wonderfully talented comedian who can deliver snark like nobody’s business. So what in the nine blue blazing hells is she doing here in the role of a washed-up paranormal consultant with connections to the CIA? This role needed someone who could act over-the-top as a zealous mad scientist, and that could not possibly be any further from Notaro’s skill set. Seriously, whomever decided that goddamn Tig Notaro was the best possible choice to play a villain should’ve been fired on the spot.

Speaking of pitifully miscast actors, let’s move on to the core family. Where do I even begin with this dumpster fire?

What’s frustrating about our lead actors is that each of them is clearly very talented, but they’re all out of place and playing terribly written characters. This is most especially obvious with Kevin and Fulton, two teenage characters written like grade schoolers and played by actors who are clearly in their twenties. I hasten to add that Fulton is a one-dimensional materialistic nitwit, and Kevin is so thinly defined that he’s only our protagonist by default.

Frank and Fulton are out to get rich by parlaying Ernest into viral social media fame, Melanie desperately wants to leave the house before this whole situation turns dangerous, and Kevin is literally the only one with any interest in befriending Ernest or trying to help him move on. That is seriously the only reason why Kevin is our protagonist, because he’s the only one in the leading cast with a sympathetic motivation.

Then we have Anthony Mackie. Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy, but Mackie is playing too far out of his wheelhouse here. This is a guy who came to fame playing war veterans and gangsters, and here he’s supposed to be playing some everyman schlub who alternates between “sweetly lame father” and “desperately inept wannabe millionaire”. Square peg, round hole. Mackie’s got too many sharp edges to really sell this role.

As for Erica Ash? Well, she doesn’t really get to do much except scream and nag. Though Melanie does have the backbone to call the other characters out on their shit, so points for that at least.

The bottom line here is that never once did I believe the Presleys were an actual family. I get that this is supposed to be a broken family made dysfunctional because of Frank’s repeated failures at getting rich quick. But the chemistry between actors just isn’t there, the writing isn’t strong enough to sell that established history, and the directing is nowhere near strong enough to sell the requisite pathos.

To wit: A hugely significant plot point is that the family is too broke to move again. At the same time, Fulton — who’s supposed to be a kid in high school, remember — wears flashy designer clothes, got a gold chain around his neck, and he’s driving around in a pristine bright orange car with racing stripes. (A Mustang is my best guess — leave a message in the comments if you know.) Fuck all the way off.

A central recurring problem here is that the film is overtly intended to be an ’80s pastiche. Several components are immediately recognizable from the likes of Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, Poltergeist, E.T., and others in that vein. In particular, Bear McCreary turns in a score that works beautifully as a loving homage to his old mentor, the late Grandmaster Elmer Bernstein.

All of that in itself is not the problem. The problem is that at their best, all those other movies had creativity, a finely-tuned ensemble cast, whip-smart comedic timing, and a keenly subversive edge. None of which this movie ever comes anywhere close to.

More importantly, the film tries to bring in all these ’80s sensibilities while telling a film set in the modern day. In many ways, this is very much a movie about how modern audiences have gone numb to anything that might be easily faked with CGI or Snapchat filters, so anyone hoping to make a splash or a scare will have to go so much farther than would’ve been necessary half a century ago. And this is why, in response to Ernest going viral on YouTube, we get a crass montage of brain-dead social media reaction videos. It’s not funny, it’s not subversive, it doesn’t say anything intelligent, it’s just mean-spirited bullshit.

To be fair and clear, it’s not like the film doesn’t have an identity of its own. Again, a lot of that is thanks to David Harbour and his iconic performance as the namesake ghost. But the race element also helps a great deal. For instance, when Kevin first meets Ernest, Kevin states that his own personal life is scarier than anything Ernest could throw at him. Coming from a young black man, that line hit on a whole ‘nother level.

But then comes the halfway point, when the authorities start getting involved. The police — by which I mean literally every level of law enforcement from old white Midwestern sheriff’s deputies to the freaking CIA — are chasing down and directly confronting this family of black people. And the race element is never brought up or addressed in any significant way. I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no way — in goddamn 2023 — to portray a direct confrontation between a black character and white cops without bringing up the specters of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others to list here. (#BlackLivesMatter #RestInPower) And the movie was neither equipped to go there nor willing to show any mindfulness about it. Chalk it up as another example of how the film tries to utilize ’80s tropes in a modern setting and the two are brought together in a way that doesn’t mesh at all.

While We Have a Ghost does pick up toward the end, that’s pretty much entirely due to David Harbour and Bear McCreary. From start to finish, the both of them put in a Herculean effort at holding the film together, but it’s not enough. This is absolutely a film that tries to accomplish too much, inevitably resulting in a film that’s tonally inconsistent and thematically incoherent. It certainly doesn’t help that with the exceptions of Harbour and Russo (and also Jennifer Coolidge, who gets to ham it up as a joke character for all of one scene), the actors were all in so far over their heads that not even their incredible talent could save them.

This is one of those times when I appreciate what the filmmakers were going for, but too many fatal errors were made in the follow-through. I really want to like this one, but no way can I recommend it. Such a damn shame.


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