As a result of a near-death experience while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, misanthropic New York City dentist Bertram Pincus gains the ability to see and communicate with the dead. Soon, he’s hounded by anxious ghosts in need of his help to put to rest matters that haunt their still-living families and friends. It’s the set-up to Ghost Town, an entertaining vehicle for comic actor Ricky Gervais whose performance is equal parts Ebeneezer Scrooge and Andy Millman, the sad-sack actor he played in the excellent BBC/HBO series Extras. Gervais makes for a wholly likable and unlikely hero in this romantic comedy with paranormal overtones, because he knows how to make an appealing hero out of the curmudgeonly Bertram. Gervais’ rapport with his equally enjoyable co-stars Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni also keeps Ghost Town on solidly funny ground.
Kinnear plays Frank Herilhy, a philanderer who meets a swift death-by-bus in Ghost Town’s opening moments. Now a ghost, formerly lousy husband Frank wants to redeem himself vis-a-vis his now-former wife Gwen, an Egyptologist specializing in mummies, and played with frazzled comic grace by Leoni. So Frank chases down the lonely Bertram and convinces him to woo Gwen away from potential suitor Richard (Bill Campbell), a goody-goody social crusader who’s also strikingly handsome and, well, perfect. Bertram’s odds are slim but, slowly, his wry personality and slow-burn sarcasm win the sharp-witted Gwen’s attentions. His budding romance hits a road block, though, after Frank’s ulterior motive for wanting to drive a wedge between Gwen and Richard is revealed. Meanwhile, ghosts desperate for Bertram’s help continue to clamor for his attention, setting up several funny scenarios.
Writer-director David Koepp and co-writer John Kamps rightly develop their material along the lines of classic romantic screwball comedies. This is goofy, off-kilter fun, for the most part, but there’s a sentimental heart to it too as the closed-off Bertram opens up to the grief and pain that afflicts the ghosts around him, and prevents them from finding peace in the afterlife. Where Koepp and Kamps fumble are in the areas of tone and pacing: Given the spirited nature of this material, Ghost Town lacks the zip and energy of true romantic screwball — the kind of comedies that Cary Grant, Carole Lombard and Katherine Hepburn helped define. It’s a bit too somber for its own good, and further dampened by its flat, dour visual palette. What Ghost Town needed was the potential for irreverence and fun behind the camera so clearly evident in the talent in front of the camera. Still, this is warmhearted, wonderfully acted, cleverly written stuff — several degrees smarter and more appealing than most of the junk being peddled as comedy these days — and a great step forward in the career of Gervais, one of today’s comedic bright lights.
Directed by: David Koepp
Written by: David Koepp, John Kamps
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Aasif Mandvi, Kristen Wiig, Dana Ivey, Jeff Hiller, Bill Campbell