Dir: David Koepp. USA. 2008. 103 mins.
A minor studio comedy notable as the first Hollywood starring vehicle for UK comic Ricky Gervais, Ghost Town takes a formulaic story about a curmudgeon learning to love and spices it up with some Gervais-style sarcasm and smartass dialogue. Making the best of its strong cast and attractive New York locations, it should achieve modest theatrical success but will enjoy its biggest audience on the small screen.
Gervais certainly generates some laughs by delivering quips or droll putdowns, but he stumbles when he is required to act the character. His Capraesque transformation from cynic to lover-of-people is unconvincing and in the dramatic scenes he is an awkward presence alongside pros like Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni.
The first comedy from writer/director David Koepp (Stir Of Echoes, Secret Window), Ghost Town starts with the death by New York City bus of Frank Herlihy (Kinnear), a married man who, prior to his untimely death, was having an affair with his yoga instructor unbeknownst to his loyal wife Gwen (Leoni).
The film then moves forward a year to follow dentist Bertram Pincus (Gervais), a cynical misanthrope with a wretched bedside manner. After he dies for seven minutes during a routine colonoscopy, he finds that he has the ability to see the myriad ghosts of Manhattan (shades of Topper) all hunting for closure before they move on to the next life. One of them is Frank who pesters Pincus relentlessly until he agrees to try and break up Gwen’s impending marriage to a humourless attorney (Campbell).
Frank doesn’t know why he is still a ghost, but knows that he has some unfinished business with Gwen. Pincus agrees to his demands only because Frank promises him that he will get the other ghosts off his back.
Of course Pincus falls in love with Gwen himself and along the way learns the value of love and kindness, as characters do in Hollywood movie fantasies like this one.
Koepp, most famous as a superstar Hollywood screenwriter with credits like Jurassic Park, Spider-man and the latest Indiana Jones film, has a light touch with the comic material and actors, and there’s a sweetness to the supernatural storyline that gives the film its heart.
Gervais, who speaks with his own English accent (there’s a lame back story about a Brit ended up a dentist in Manhattan), is an unlikely movie star and the jury’s still out on whether his distinctive brand of humour will work in formulaic Hollywood movies like this one. Nor is it exactly plausible that Tea Leoni’s character would fall for Gervais, who is even less likely a romantic catch than Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell.
There are some choice supporting turns here notably from Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig as the inept surgeon who bungles his procedure, Dana Ivey as a ghost anxious to quell her daughter’s anxiety and Aasif Mandvi as an Indian dentist who works alongside Pincus.
Director of photography