Writer-director Christopher Landon has made a career out of taking some of the most tired and shopworn genre plots imaginable and infusing them with a welcome sense of self-awareness that, while not always resulting in great films, consistently delivers the goods entertainment-wise, from the Groundhog Day-inspired Happy Death Day series to the body-swap horror comedy Freaked. Landon continues that trend with his latest, We Have a Ghost, a Netflix original that is nothing more than a 21st century riff on the supernatural-tinged Amblin films of yesteryear, with a healthy dose of Beetlejuice thrown into the mix. Yes, Landon is indeed in family-film mode, yet his reliably sharp wit remains intact, even as a needlessly convoluted plot threatens to derail the proceedings at nearly every turn.
As the pre-credits opener makes abundantly clear, there is indeed a supernatural being taking up residence in a gorgeous Victorian house somewhere in the Chicago suburbs. The sudden exit by yet another set of terrified homeowners has left both a vacancy and a dramatic price drop that is all but catnip to the financially strapped Presley clan. Dad Frank (Anthony Mackie) is a bit of a mess whose various get-rich-quick schemes have sent the family ping-ponging across the country for years, and the opportunity for a fresh start is too alluring for the bullheaded opportunist. This has resulted in more than a bit of resentment when it comes to mom Melanie (Erica Ash) and youngest son Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who has what one might politely call a “strained relationship” with his father. Eldest son Fulton (Niles Fitch) likes to work out and talk about his drip, and as such is a non-entity when it comes to the proceedings.
One entity in particular, however, is about to change the lives of this quarrelsome brood forever, as Kevin soon becomes aware of the aforementioned ghost living in their attic, a middle-aged spirit by the name of Ernest (David Harbour) who sports a beer belly, a bowling shirt, and a terrible comb over. Ernest’s attempts to scare off Kevin only inspire laughter in the heretofore sullen teen, and it isn’t long before the two have become fast friends, a rather remarkable achievement considering Ernest is unable to speak. A video taken by Kevin is soon discovered by Dad and big brother, who take it upon themselves to post it on YouTube. Within days, Ernest has become a viral sensation, and even Mom can’t help but get swept up in the ensuing frenzy, as TikTok stars across the globe become infatuated with the lovable lug. Yet Kevin knows that Ernest is secretly in pain, desperate to remove his spirit from the mortal realm, and so We Have a Ghost becomes yet another tale of trauma and redemption, as Kevin and next-door neighbor/new friend/potential love interest Joy (Isabella Russo) hit the open road with Ernest in tow, desperate to uncover the truth about his past.
As if this wasn’t already enough plot for several movies, we also get a story thread about a secret sector of the CIA named Wizard Clip that has made it its mission to hunt down and capture ghosts, believing them to be evil or to hold the secret of life or some such nonsense. Tig Notaro plays the lead agent, in what marks her second thankless supporting role in a Netflix film in only a month. There’s also the matter of a basic cable medium named Judy Romano, who pops up for an absolutely superfluous sequence that seems to exist solely because Landon wanted Jennifer Coolidge to make an appearance, and while one can understand and admire such a desire, it does nothing but needlessly pad an already punishing 127-minute runtime. Yes, you read that correctly: this family comedy is 127 minutes long, because why wouldn’t it be in the year 2023?
There is indeed such a thing as too much of a good thing, and We Have a Ghost has about 40 minutes too much of it; it’s overstuffed to the point of sheer gluttony, while somehow still giving its main cast nearly nothing to do. Mackie is utterly wasted, save for a sweet but obvious monologue near the film’s end, while Harbour gets his goof on in CGI mode, which truly seems like a waste of such a talented comedic actor. It’s easy to see what Landon was going for here — a supernatural tale for the age of social media — but the particular plot elements are handled in the most ham-fisted way possible. Indeed, it’s only when the filmmaker channels his inner-’80s Spielberg that the film truly excels, from a couple of Tex Avery-inspired gross-out set-pieces (albeit within the parameters of a PG-13 rating) to the maudlin yet still effective sentimentality of the father/son strife. If only We Have a Ghost also had the one thing it so desperately needed the most — an editor.
You can currently stream We Have a Ghost on Netflix.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.