During the first half of this decade, the pop-cultural zeitgeist began to clarify to Hollywood that mainstream cinema geared toward women does not necessarily have to be confined to rom-coms or Nicholas Sparks’ misery porn romances. If there’s one positive lesson to take from this decade as far as audiovisual entertainment is concerned, it’s “Representation is everything.” During a time when a black superhero broke box-office records, it shouldn’t be surprising that female-centric material expanded into genres that were previously dominated by men.
In a perfect world, the mostly male studio executives and suits, after seeing (yet again) evidence of considerable demand for female-led genre material, would begin developing original and fresh material to meet that demand. But this is far from a perfect world, so the response from Hollywood was of course to dust off their lucrative and beloved classics and lazily swap out the gender roles.
So with a considerable number of these remakes and reboots under our belt in the last few years, let’s dive into whether or not these films actually advanced representation, gave us a different angle into the male-led originals, or were financially or culturally worthy enterprises in the first place. Ground rules: We’re only talking about official remakes or reboots of movies. For example, as fellow Paste write Jim Vorel pointed out, every critic and their mom seems to be calling Olivia Wilde’s festival darling directorial debut Booksmart the “Female Superbad,” but it’s not an actual remake. Same goes for literary classics that have been adapted multiple times in multiple forms, like the 2010 version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Helen Mirren as Prospero, a traditionally male character.
Reboot, Remake or …?: Reboot, Ghostbusters (1984)
This is the one that got the ball rolling, and as it is with all trailblazers, it’s the one that keeps getting the blame or the praise for kickstarting the movement. On paper, a Ghostbusters reboot with an all-female cast as the titular busters was an interesting way to instill some new life into a project that has been stuck in development hell for decades. First, it was supposed to be a better-late-than-never sequel with the original cast. When they got too old to reprise their parts as fantasy/action whippersnappers, the idea then became to cast younger—most likely male—comedians and use the original cast as mentors, like the Creed franchise with gooey protoplasm.
When writer/director Paul Feig jumped onboard, he decided to apply his previous success with female-driven action/comedies like The Heat and Spy to this fantasy/comedy property by having all four ghostbusters played by a mix of established and up-and-coming comediennes. Of course this predictably resulted in a mostly social-media-driven uproar from dudebro incels who balked at the idea of looking up to powerful and funny women on screen. This got pushed back effectively by those who saw the casting as long overdue representation in an area where almost none previously existed.
After months of cultural turmoil and internet warfare, the new Ghostbusters was finally released and it was … fine. Putting aside the egregious product placements—it was made by Sony after all—and the gauche cameos from the original cast, Feig did a decent job adapting his manic, improvisational humor to the giddily goofy campfire spooks of the Ghostbusters universe. The theatrical release is a bit of a mess, but I’d actually recommend the extended cut, which adds some vital character development and replaces some lame jokes with slightly better ones.
As far as the script itself referencing the characters’ gender, aside from some meta jokes about online trolls, the conflict that the busters face is about the same as the original four; the rest of the world sees them as kooks who believe in paranormal mumbo jumbo until of course they become desperately needed when Slimer and his cousins decide to wreak havoc on Times Square. Otherwise, there’s very little direct reference to the characters being women.
After all of the hype, the 2016 Ghostbusters made $230 million on a budget of $144 million, which isn’t much profit if you also consider the extra funds for marketing. The audience reaction was a collective “meh,” and the studio has already moved to reattach penises to the franchise with Jason Reitman’s upcoming reboot. However, Ghostbusters’ lackluster box-office didn’t stop studios from green lighting a bevy of gender-swapped remakes. The second half of 2016 was full of industry publication news about yet another male-dominated classic getting the female treatment, with little regard to whether or not such endeavors made artistic or narrative sense.
Reboot, Remake or …?: Remake, Overboard (1987)
I’m in the tiny minority of critics who actually halfway enjoyed this gender-swapped remake of the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn comedy. Even though the male and female parts are switched for the remake, with Anna Faris in the Russell role as a working class woman who tricks an amnesiac spoiled rich brat (Hawn in the original, Eugenio Derbez in the remake) to believe they’re married in order to exact revenge for being treated like trash, the thematic conflict between the two main characters remains based more on class than gender.
Yet it’s still fun to see Derbez exuberantly showcasing that men can be insufferable primadonnas. We also get some commentary here and there about how hard it is for a woman to be a single parent. Even though it made almost zero cultural splash, the 2018 Overboard is actually the biggest financial winner on this list, yielding a $91 million return on a budget of $12 million.
Reboot, Remake or …?: Spin-off, Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Since women still make about 70 cents on every dollar that a man makes, I guess it makes sense for a female spin-off of the Ocean’s Eleven series to cut the female amount of plucky and charismatic heist flick archetypes to eight. Sorry ladies, you get thirty percent less resources in order to pull off your “impossible” heist. The leader of the pack this time around is Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, the somehow never-before-mentioned sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean.
As soon as she’s out, Debbie goes for sweet revenge after the guy who put her there, recruiting a team played by a versatile group of actors, from the prestige heft of Cate Blanchett to the fresh millennial humor of Awkwafina. Like Ghostbusters, there isn’t much narrative context related to the characters’ gender. That is, aside from the fact that the girls’ target is the most expensive jewelry in the world. One thinks of a dull ’90s stand-up routine about how much women love their “bling,” but at least the script emphasizes that Ocean and her gang look at the jewelry as a means to an end.
Ocean’s Eight was as successful as its counterparts in executing the fluffy and carefree heist comedy we expect from the franchise ever since the 1960 Rat Pack original. It made a respectable $300 million on a budget of $70 million, and got the middle-of-the-road reviews and reactions it deserved from critics and audiences. On the other hand, Widows, a much more insightful, engaging, and layered drama about a group of desperate women getting themselves into a dangerous heist, got slammed at the box office. But it’s not too late; you can still check it out on home video.
Reboot, Remake or …?: Remake, What Women Want (2000)
Writer/director Nancy Myers’ 2000 fantasy/rom-com about a chauvinist (racist-ass Melly Gibsons, as Key & Peele put it) who gains empathy for the opposite sex after being able to hear their thoughts was actually remade in China in 2011. As far as a gender-swapped reimagining goes, of course the first thought that would come to anyone’s mind is that the scenario of women hearing men’s thoughts would result in a series of disgusting sex-related sleaze. Thankfully, Chapelle’s Show already got that out of the way with this brilliant skit.
This year’s gender- and race-swapped remake What Men Want, on the other hand, gets more than two minutes to make its point, so it wisely adds at least some depth to what goes on in men’s heads than the wished-upon mashing of random body parts. Taraji P. Henson is Ali, a cutthroat sports agent who has to fulfill the cliché of the career-obsessed harpy in order to even think about rising above her white male peers. The character isn’t necessarily a misandrist, but she certainly sees men as mere playthings. That is, until she meets the kind and caring Will (Aldis Hodge), the Helen Hunt of this version.
Even though the script exploits plenty of comedic real estate from men thinking piggish thoughts, with more miss-than-hit results, it at least tries to even the field by showing that all men don’t think alike. There are also some on-the-nose but important sequences about how hard it is for a woman of color to climb the corporate ladder. Unfortunately, the film’s narrative momentum shoots itself in the foot with a tacky ’80s comedy-of-errors sub-plot where Ali has to pretend to be married to Will in order to land a big client. This leads to some awkward pacing and an overblown runtime. What Men Want made $72 million on a budget of $20 million and got some predictably mixed reviews.
Reboot, Remake or …?: Remake, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is not only a vast improvement on Bedtime Story, the 1964 David Niven/Marlon Brando comedy it’s based on, but is also one of the greatest comedies of its decade. Much of its success depends on the pitch-perfect casting and the immaculate chemistry between stars Michael Caine and Steve Martin, who play con artists competing against one another to see who’s the best at ripping rich women off. Unfortunately the opposite is the case with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, who replace Caine and Martin in a remake that sticks pretty close to the story beats of the original—or the original remake.
The repetition of gags that made us howl in the original merely register as slight chuckles here, as Hathaway and Wilson never manage to end up on the same wavelength, making it look like they’re acting in two separate movies. Out of the other gender-swapped remakes, this is the one that puts the most emphasis on the characters being women. The motivation for them to con rich men is because those kinds of men think of women as nothing but ditzy toys, so they take advantage of this stereotype to not only get rich, but to also teach them a lesson. The problem with the 2019 flick is related to the ultimate message of the 1988 film (spoilers for a movie you honestly should have seen already): It starts off as if it condones the protagonists’ sexist behavior, but then pulls the rug from under them and the audience by revealing that their female target (Glenne Headly, RIP) was a much smarter and bigger con artist than the two of them combined.
Therefore, the film ends with a rather progressive message that flips both the protagonists’ and the audience’s pre-conceived notions about women. In The Hustle, by turning these characters into women and their target a man (Alex Sharp), the filmmakers fumble when it comes to their supposed progressive agenda, because the message now appears to be that no matter how smart women think they are, a man will always be better than them. So far, The Hustle isn’t doing bad financially, having raked in $30 million dollars over the weekend. However, the deserved horrible critical reaction is another story.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.