In Praise of Paul Feig's beautiful male idiots, from Chris Hemsworth in Ghostbusters to Jason Statham in Spy.

In Praise of Paul Feig’s Beautiful Male Idiots

In Praise of Paul Feig’s Beautiful Male Idiots

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 18 2016 6:00 AM

In Praise of Paul Feig’s Beautiful Male Idiots

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Chris Hemsworth as the spectacularly dim Kevin in the new Ghostbusters.

Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures

Now that protectionist fans of the original Ghostbusters who were never too keen on the idea of a female-fronted reboot have gotten a look at the new film, their complaints have shifted from the general to the specific. The problem, the newly minted argument goes, isn’t that the new Ghostbusters’ main characters are all women but that all of the movie’s male characters are portrayed as incompetent and obstructionist. Just ask Matt Zion, the YouTube food and gaming critic behind “Ghostbusters 2016 How Every Man Is An Idiot Or An Asshole.”

It is true that every significant male character in Ghostbusters, which was directed by Paul Feig and co-written by Feig and Katie Dippold, is either clueless or hostile, from the tour guide (Zach Woods) who gets slimed in the opening reel to the mayor of New York City (Andy Garcia), whom Kristen Wiig suggests is acting a little like the dangerously oblivious mayor in Jaws. (He snaps “Don’t ever compare me to the Jaws mayor!”) That’s also true of the movie’s female characters outside the core quartet, from Cecily Strong’s cheerily mendacious City Hall flack to the homicidal 19th-century heiress who appears as the first malevolent apparition. Like the original foursome, the new Ghostbusters are tasked with saving the city from a threat no one else will acknowledge exists. No one, male or female, is on their side.

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It’s probably not worth trying to get these particular critics to look past their easily bruised egos to see that even if their claim of unequal treatment were true, it would merely be the result of treating men the way movies have treated women for decades. But it shouldn’t be so hard to recognize that, whatever the aggregate affect, some of those male idiots are awfully darn funny. That’s especially true of Chris Hemsworth, who plays the Ghostbusters’ spectacularly dim receptionist, Kevin.

To an extent, Kevin is a gender-flipped version of Annie Potts’ surly secretary from the first Ghostbusters, but he’s more like Jon Hamm’s character on 30 Rock: a beautiful idiot who’s coasted through life on the strength of his looks. (Hamm himself played an early, angrier prototype in Feig’s Bridesmaids, a Porsche-driving douchebro who, after hearing Chris Dowd’s Irish accent, comments, “That cop talks weird.”) He’s charming at first, enough to make Wiig’s character weak in the knees, but he’s like one of those models unconvincingly dressed up as a librarian in an ’80s rock video. As he sits down for his job interview, Kevin reaches to scratch the bridge of his nose and puts his fingers right through the part of his glasses where the lenses should be. Asked why he’s wearing frames sans lenses, he explains, “They kept getting dirty.”

Hemsworth is best known for the Marvel movies, and in Ghostbusters he carries himself with the bearing of a Norse god, except he’s got no powers and his skull is as thick as Thor’s hammer. At one point, he asks his employers to help him pick between glossy 8-by-10s of him shirtless and clutching a saxophone, and they’re dazzled both by his inappropriateness and the sight of his bare, sculpted chest. Kevin is even too stupid to realize how stupid he is, mangling the scientific jargon that pours out of Kate McKinnon’s mouth like liquid silver but convinced he totally nailed it. By the end, he’s convinced himself he’s part of the team and entitled to an equal share of the credit, despite the fact that he can’t even pick up a phone without causing havoc.

One critic complained that Kevin “feels one-note and underwritten, even more so than many female roles in past male-focused blockbusters,” but it’s a note that Hemsworth sings beautifully. It’s one of the best performances of his career, a canny comic riff from an actor who usually tends toward the taciturn. Paradoxically, he seems more intelligent here than he did playing a genius hacker in Michael Mann’s Blackhat, never letting his deadpan crack as the women around him marvel at his brainlessness. (According to an interview with BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur, some of the most blissfully dumb bits, including one in which he seems to own a dog named “my cat,” were Hemsworth’s own improvisations.) You can see Kevin as an extension of the swaggering, self-important TV weatherman Hemsworth played in last year’s Vacation (also an extension of an ’80s franchise with the same name as the original), but this particular kind of hypermasculine boob is more closely in line with the loudmouthed secret agent played by Jason Statham in Feig’s Spy.

Like Kevin, Statham’s Rick Ford is a heightened caricature of a certain kind of male obliviousness. He’s bullheaded and blind to his own faults, good in a fight but hopeless at the parts of espionage that involve keeping a low profile. (Melissa McCarthy’s desk-bound agent, invisible even in her own workplace, excels at that part.) Throughout the course of Spy, Statham rattles off a string of increasingly implausible accomplishments in an attempt to impress McCarthy: He’s immune to 179 different kinds of poison; he once reattached a severed arm with his other arm; he “jumped from a high-rise building, using only a raincoat as a parachute and broke both legs upon landing. I still had to pretend I was in a fucking Cirque de Soleil show.”

Hemsworth is just getting started sending up his own stoicism, but Statham has been at it for years, taking a break from stern-faced action movies with the Crank series, where his rock-headed hitman gets treated like a human Wile E. Coyote. Paul Feig is getting practiced at deconstructing masculine archetypes as well. The more he does it, the funnier it gets, and the more latitude actors like Hemsworth and Statham have to try something new, rather than the chiseled, square-jawed (anti)heroes they’ve played in so many other movies. Ghostbusters hands Hemsworth a plot-critical role in its final act, but he, and the movie, are much more fun when he gets to doodle around the edges. Sure, in Feig’s movies, women get to be the heroes. But men get to be the idiots, and in a comedy, that’s just as good.

Sam Adams is a Slate senior editor and the editor of Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat.