Ricky Gervais is a genius. Let's make that clear from the start. I'm amazed by how many people in this country are still unfamiliar with his work, or even his name. Gervais created "The Office" and, in his native Britain, played the role Steve Carell has made famous here. He also created and starred in HBO's series "Extras," which never achieved the popularity of another backstage-in-the-entertainment-biz show, "Entourage," but matched (or even surpassed) it in laughs. In Ghost Town, Gervais is working solely as an actor (the screenplay belongs to John Kamps and director David Koepp), and yet it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the central role. Well, okay, that's not entirely true; I can imagine any number of American comic actors taking it on and doing something predictable with it. In the hands of Gervais, though, the film becomes something truly special. This plot has been done before with other stars, yet it has never felt so fresh and real.
Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a Manhattan dentist who generally despises the human race. The best part of his job, he says, is that he can shove cotton in his patients' mouths to shut them up. During what is supposed to be a routine colonoscopy, Bertram dies for seven minutes before being resuscitated. There is one side effect: he can now see and communicate with the dead. And they all want something from him: to send a message to a loved one, to do something left unfinished, etc. No one wants more from Bertram than Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear). It turns out that Frank's widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni), lives in Bertram's building and is about to get re-married to a guy he does not approve of. Frank asks the reluctant Bertram to do whatever it takes to break them up and prevent Gwen from making a big mistake.
I know what you're probably thinking: you've seen this before, most notably in the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore weeper Ghost. But hold on. What sets Ghost Town apart is that it knows this story has been told before and intentionally goes in some different directions. For instance, Bertram discovers that Gwen's new boyfriend isn't exactly the no-good lout Frank makes him out to be. He also learns that Frank was not the ideal husband, having been apartment hunting for his mistress at the time of his death. One complication is predictable - Bertram falls for Gwen himself - yet he's such a misanthropic sort that it is by no means a foregone conclusion that she'll ever feel the same way about him.
Ghost Town isn't so much about who Gwen will end up with anyway. Instead, it's about making yourself a better person, whether alive or dead. Over the course of the story Bertram has to decide whether his selfish ways are really benefiting him in life, while Frank has to try to make up for mistakes made before he died, the betrayal of his wife being chief among them.
That's some heady stuff for a comedy, but Koepp manages to find the perfect balance between humor and pathos. One way he does this is to find the humor inside that pathos. Rather than making a movie that relies on obvious, heavy-handed gags, the director instead chooses to allow the humor to arise unforced out of the characters and situations. For this type of thing, there is no better star than Ricky Gervais. Unlike many comic actors, Gervais isn't afraid to go deep playing a flawed, occasionally unsympathetic character. We often laugh at the antisocial behavior of Bertram Pincus, but that's also what makes his gradual transformation so affecting. We see him go from an ornery S.O.B. to someone who slowly learns to think about others for a change. This is a first-rate performance from one of the funniest people on the planet.
Everyone in the supporting cast shines as well. Greg Kinnear continues his trend of choosing characters who appear wholesome on the surface but maintain a dark side. Tea Leoni, meanwhile, shows again why she is one of the most underrated actresses on the scene today. She makes you understand why Gwen opens herself up slightly to this mean little dentist and how she sees something inside him that he doesn't even see himself. Then there's "Saturday Night Live" star Kristin Wiig, who has an extended cameo as Bertram's doctor. There is a long scene in which she tries to avoid telling Bertram that he died, while he insistently presses her for details. The scene goes on for at least 5 or 6 minutes in a mostly unbroken shot. This is what happens when you take two people who fundamentally understand comic timing and allow them to just have at it.
So many of the story's little details add to the fun. One of the best is the idea that you wear for eternity whatever you died in. Therefore, Frank is constantly in a tuxedo, while another guy who wants Bertram's help is nude. (How awkward would that be?) Another nice touch is the idea that when a soul passes though a human body, the human sneezes. This leads to a very funny sequence in which Bertram tries to walk through a group of ghosts who have surrounded him.
Ghost Town made me laugh a lot, even while it addressed some weighty themes. The danger in mixing comedy and "heart" is that it's all too easy to hit the sentimental notes too hard. This movie never does because it focuses on characters, who are flawed. Human flaws can be fundamentally funny, yet at the same time they are resistant to sugarcoating. The film's ending, which could have been saccharine beyond all belief, is instead genuine and meaningful. As such, the whole picture works on two levels. People looking for a great comedy will find one, and so will people looking for a story of substance.
As it happens, there was an advance press screening of Ghost Town in my area that I was not able to attend. I therefore saw the movie in its regular release, in a completely empty theater. The film's opening weekend box office take was a paltry $5 million. I mention this because Ghost Town deserves a lot better. It's terrific entertainment all the way around. Do yourself a favor. Go see it.
( 1/2 out of four)
Ghost Town is rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual humor and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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