The tagline for Ghost Town states us, "He sees dead people... and they annoy him." The "he" is Ricky Gervais, and he plays Betram Pincus, a dentist with extremely poor people skills who dies -- for just under seven minutes - but is revived. Only problem is that now he sees all the restless souls wandering the streets of Manhattan and they want him to help them resolve the issues that are keeping them in limbo. Pincus doesn't care much for the living and now he finds he cares even less for the dead. What's a misanthrope to do?
Greg Kinnear and Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town (Paramount)
Then Frank (Greg Kinnear), a recently deceased philandering husband, makes Pincus an offer. If Pincus can prevent Frank's widow Gwen (Tea Leoni finally getting a decent comic role from Hollywood) from remarrying, Frank will make sure all the lost souls leave the dentist alone. Pincus reluctantly takes on the challenge and is surprised when Frank points out that Gwen leaves in Pincus' building and that he's been consistently rude to her. This sets up an odd romantic triangle as Pincus starts to come out of his misanthropic shell as he gets to know Gwen, and Frank -though deceased - still feels a lingering attachment to his wife.
Ghost Town is an odd sort of romantic comedy in that it doesn't seem to have much faith in Gervais as a romantic lead, even a comic one. That means that he never even gets to kiss the girl. It's as if the filmmakers thought Gervais was great as the awkward dentist but then didn't know what to do with him after his character has a change of heart. But they should have had more confidence in him. Gervais is a performer with expert comic instincts. He's fully able of finding the uncomfortable laughs in Pincus' absent social skills but he's also fully capable of winning us over and making us buy him as a romantic lead (albeit an unconventional one).
Co-written and directed by David Koepp, Ghost Town harkens back to such classic supernatural comedies as Topper , in which a pair of carefree ghosts (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) try to inject some life into the stuffy title character. Ghost Town , unfortunately, takes itself more seriously than that breezy 1930s screwball comedy as it tries to give a deeper meaning to what all these lost souls are waiting for. This is Koepp's first attempt at comedy and he doesn't display a real flair for it; his direction feels competent but rather uninspired. He does have a nice eye for the New York cityscape and he does manage a funny gag involving a violinist in Central Park unexpectedly providing chase music. But overall, he doesn't inject much comic energy into the film.
But he and co-writer John Kamps do create a good character for Gervais and give him some sharp comic exchanges (and I would guess that Gervais helped fine tune the details). There's a hilarious scene when Pincus is checking into the hospital and he refuses to give the admitting nurse any information because it's an invasion of his privacy. His exchanges with his surgeon (a very dry and evasive Kristen Wiig) are also top notch. The writers are also good at maintaining Pincus' quirks even after he softens. Pincus may try to be nicer but he still remains awkward, there is no miraculous total transformation, and that's refreshing.
Tea Leoni and Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town (Paramount)
The main reason, however, to see Ghost Town is Gervais. He's brilliant even if the film isn't. You feel like he inhabits his character completely and has all the details of his life down pat so we believe the person he has created. As an actor, Gervais doesn't seem driven to ingratiate himself with the audience (something that can make performers annoying, just think of Sally Field's Oscar speech, "You like me, you really like me"). In fact Gervais seems to thrive on playing characters that create a certain level of unease with viewers. Yet his skill lies in his ability to still somehow be able to make us like him. It's a pleasure to watch him work. By contrast, Kinnear's performance comes off as slick and smug. He's not quite willing to be the cad that his character is. Kinnear' Frank feels like a character out of a TV sitcom and he does little more than serve as a plot device. Leoni is appealing but this is yet another role that really doesn't let her put her comedic skills to full use.
Ghost Town (PG-13 for some strong language, sexual humor and drug references) is highly entertaining because of Gervais. Hollywood seems to have been willing to bank on him as the star of a film. Next time maybe they will let him have more creative control behind the camera as well so we can see what Gervais can really do.
Companion viewing: Topper , Extras (British TV series), Bleach (anime series)