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Ghost Town (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 19 September 2008
ImageScreenwriter David Koepp (many for Spielberg) occasionally tries his hand at directing, usually with mediocre results—“A Stir of Echoes,” “Secret Window”—but with “Ghost Town” he finally scores. This romantic comedy, with ghosts, is understated, well-made and occasionally hilarious. Koepp’s comic timing and dialogue (he co-wrote with John Kamps) are expert and intelligent; he even stops a comic scene on a dime, immediately making it wistful and poignant with just one word (“disloyal”). Maybe Koepp should have been doing quiet comedies all along. Or maybe he just needed to work with Ricky Gervais, the star of “Ghost Town.”

The town in question is New York. As the movie opens, we meet self-satisfied Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), walking in downtown Manhattan, talking on his ever-present Blackberry. As he’s in the midst of keeping his wife from finding out he’s setting up a love nest with his mistress, he steps back to avoid being killed by a falling air conditioner—and steps into the path of a hurtling bus, ending up dead anyway. (“Are you kidding?!” he shouts.)

About a year later (as events tell us), we meet Manhattan dentist Dr. Pincus (Gervais). He’s a cold, unresponsive guy, who doesn’t even attend the party his office partner Dr. Prashar (Aasif Mandvi) is giving to celebrate the birth of a child. He’s offhandedly rude or uncaring to everyone he meets, living a trail of annoyance behind him. He prepares (amusingly) for a colonoscopy, but the next morning, after surgery, he asks his doctor (a very funny Kristen Wiig) who were all those people in his room the night before. She stammeringly hesitates to answer.

As he walks back to his apartment, he’s puzzled by several passersby who seem greatly surprised, even excited, to realize he can see them. Well, of course he can see them—they look like regular New Yorkers. (The streets are underpopulated in a kind of classic movie way.) One of these is tuxedo-clad Frank, who tries to get Pincus to help him, but he gets the brush-off—Pincus does a lot of brushing-off. He’s self-contained and selfish.

Soon enough, Pincus learns from his nervous surgeon that something odd happened to him on the operating table—he died. But only a little bit, for seven minutes or so. With Frank’s input, he realizes this has given him the power to see dead people, and they irritate him. Some of these ghosts have been hanging around for years—a nurse is in a 1940s outfit—and all of them have left people behind they need to contact in some way. That link has kept them here on Earth, rather than passing on to the Great Hereafter. Maybe Pincus could help them, but he’s just not interested; instead, he’s devoted his hours out of office to feeling sorry for himself. He’s a dentist, he tells Frank, because most of the people he deals with have their mouths full of cotton and can’t bother him with their chatter. When it’s suggested he doesn’t like crowds, he admits that it’s “not so much crowds; it’s the individuals in the crowds I don’t like.”
But Frank’s an enterprising ghost, and promises to make Pincus life, depressing enough already, even more depressing and annoying unless the dentist will help prevent the upcoming marriage of Frank’s widow Gwen (Téa Leoni). Frank heartily disapproves of her new match, and finally is able to persuade Pincus to take a hand in this venture. He begins giving Pincus advice on how to be appealing to Gwen.

Gwen is an archeologist, currently involved in the study of a particular Egyptian mummy (which we see a lot of). Pincus attends one of her lectures, and offers his advice as a dentist—maybe he can figure out what killed the ancient Egyptian. But there’s a problem right away: Gwen lives in Pincus’ building, and from their occasional brief encounters, has come to regard him (with justice) as an irredeemable jerk.

But he persists. He meets Richard (Billy Campbell), her fiancé, a lawyer with an international practice—he’s a devoted humanitarian, working on behalf of downtrodden people everywhere. He even tries to talk Pincus into helping out. When Pincus himself begins to be attracted to Gwen (you saw that coming), things become complicated.

“Ghost Town” is a fantasy but doesn’t rely on special effects; about the only one we see here is that the ghosts can pass through people (or people through them); the only result is that it makes the living sneeze. This is about the people, not the effects; it isn’t even about Manhattan, presented as a mostly dreamy place to live, in its autumnal colors and mildly wintry scenes (some hail, a few icy sidewalks). It’s mostly about how and why Pincus learns to stop being a jerk and become a nice guy again.

And it’s also about him and Gwen falling in love. This is speeded up a bit, partly because he’s a very amusing guy when he wants to be, but it’s entirely believable. We can easily see why she’s attracted to him, as well as to Richard—and even, for that matter, to the late (but still present) Frank. Leoni is becoming one of our best comic actresses in a naturalistic mode; she’s attractive, she has no problem being intelligent, and she can even take a pratfall with all of the aplomb of Lucille Ball.

Kinnear, who’s always reliable, is again so here. He seems to have stepped out of a 1940s movie, where his role would have been played by Cary Grant, David Niven or James Stewart. He delivers his lines with a natural grace, and he’s likeable—even while we easily understand that he didn’t treat Gwen well at all. Frank was thrown into eternity in the clothes he died in—he even still has his Blackberry. He can’t get a hookup from there, but at least he can play Tetris on it. He’s unaware that he’s as selfish as Pincus, regarding himself as basically a nice guy.

It’s to Pincus’ credit that he’s entirely aware that he IS a jerk, but it has long since ceased to bother him; he isn’t even really aware of it any longer. But when his days and nights are full of ghosts pleading for—or demanding—his help, he begins to change. At first, to coerce him to helping him, Frank sics the other ghosts onto Pincus; they show up in his bedroom, they cram into elevators, they follow him down Manhattan streets in a quiet, eager mob. A few stand out—a young father (Alan Ruck, a nice guy for a change) worried about the son he left behind, an elderly woman (Dana Ivey) concerned that her daughters are no longer speaking, a trio of construction workers who want their boss to know their deaths weren’t his fault, a biker who wants his old lady to wear her helmet. But Pincus just won’t involve himself. You know, of course, that will eventually change; wisely, Koepp presents this in a dialogue-free, understated montage.

Ricky Gervais is barely known to most on this side of the Atlantic, but viewers of the British edition of “The Office”—available on BBC America—know what a superb comic actor he is. Gervais manages to be endearing, annoying, supercilious, vapid and oversensitive, all at the same time. His attractive grin can slip smoothly into a grimace of discomfort. In “The Office,” which he co-created, he has the role that Steve Carrell does in the American version—but he’s more human, more sympathetic, and a little more creepy, than Carrell. “Ghost Town” is his first leading role in a movie, on either side of the Big Pond, and he’s ideal casting as the self-pitying, inobservant, uncaring dentist. As irksome as he is at the beginning, we can see, in his wounded eyes, that there’s something sad in his background, that he probably wasn’t always this way. The plot of “Ghost Town” isn’t of Pincus wising up, it’s of Pincus regaining himself, and it’s very pleasant, very satisfying to watch. And near the end, it becomes very moving as well. He’s entirely successful at presenting the kind of character arc that Adam Sandler almost always tries to present, but rarely succeeds.

“Ghost Town” is an unassuming movie, a fantasy somewhat in the Thorne Smith “Topper” vein; it’s satisfying and enough fun to watch that it stands a chance of being a modest success in theaters and an even bigger hit on home video.

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