A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 102 mins.

Bertram Pincus: Ricky Gervais / Frank Herlihy: Greg Kinnear / Gwen: Tea Leoni / Marjorie: Dana Ivey / Richard: Billy Campbell

Directed by David Koepp / Written by Koepp and John Kamps.

Ricky Gervais himself perhaps best epitomized why I think that the new supernatural romantic dramedy, GHOST TOWN, is such a wonderfully refreshing film.  While on a recent talk show, he hilariously reflected on his first big Hollywood staring role in the film: 

“Just what America wants: a fat, British, middle-aged comedian trying to be a semi-romantic lead.” 

That’s precisely why I think that GHOST TOWN fires so successfully on so many unconventional cylinders.  Gervais is short, plump, melon faced, has dour eyes and a side-parted receding hairline.  He is not Matthew McConaughey shamelessly cavorting around shirtless for 90-plus minutes for every female audience member’s ogling pleasure.  

Gervais is anything but leading man material, let alone romantic leading man material, and his matter-of-fact manner of sardonically questioning the validity of his role In GHOST TOWN has more than a grain of truth.   In an age of banal, dime-a-dozen romantic comedies that go along every single preordained and systematic formula – from  insipidly predictable storylines to their super model gorgeous main stars – GHOST TOWN is a real gem for its inspired choices that go against the grain.  Yes, it too goes through many of the motions of other similar genre films, but this one works harder by giving us a male lead that has to earn our affection and rooting interest in him.  It’s the film’s calculating manner of doing things just a bit off kilter that allows it to shine so brightly. 

And…of course…most of the credit has to go to Gervais, who just may be the funniest man…well…alive.  You may remember him from very bit parts in films like the forgettable NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM and STARDUST...or the name may slip your mind altogether.  One thing is for sure: you need to put this British actor on your film radar, and GHOST TOWN is a fine and grand introduction for the Gervais-uninitiated to his comedic genius.   

I do not engage in hyperbolic ranting here, folks; I really do think he’s about as funny as any actor I’ve seen.  Anyone doubting this bold assertion has never seen the original BBC version of THE OFFICE, which is the most uproarious TV show I’ve even sat through that made me laugh in ways I never thought possible.  Gervais also recently headlined BBC’s EXTRAS, a comedy that dealt with the highly unglamorous world of movie extras.  

One thing is for sure from watching these two shows: Gervais is an unparalleled master of naturalistic, caustic comedy and playing characters that teeter along near pain-inducing social awkwardness and self-humiliation.  The thing I love about Gervais’ screen presence is that he does not engage in mournful camera mugging or self-indulgent histrionics to get a laugh, nor does he feel the need to play likeable blokes to garner audience sympathy.  Instead, he is scarily convincing and easy-going playing arrogant recluses that say things and act in manners that inevitably occur at the worst possible moments, usually to the shock and awe of innocent victims around him.  Gervais' brilliance at playing borderline indignant – but amazingly likeable and amusing – jerks makes his comedy seem all the more naturalistic.  His schtick never feels forced, over done, or ill timed - his cadence, flow, and tone is assuredly letter perfect every time. 

Thankfully, GHOST TOWN is the first major Hollywood film that rightfully harnesses all of Gervais’ offbeat skills.  In the film he plays Bertram Pincus, a sour puss of a middle-aged loner if there ever was one.  He is a dentist by trade, a profession that almost makes it impossible to not have good people skills, but Bertram is such a vindictive and foul spirited snob that he astoundingly is able to find a way to have a successful practice by not communicating in meaningful ways to his patients (perhaps the novocain helps too).  He’s eerily unsociable, impolite, rude, and a woefully selfish bastard.  He’s the kind of a-hole that would gladly take a handicapped spot at a local grocery store if it meant getting him in and out of the store as fast as possible.  Bertram is also a sad and melancholic figure:  he’s friendless, unmarried, and fastidious in his ridiculous unwillingness to let other people into his life.  In terms of being a social butterfly, he’s barely hit the larva stage. 

Oh…even more ghastly is the fact that Bertram is also...horribly constipated.  After one night of taking a horrendous looking oral laxative fails to go well, he checks himself into a hospital under the care of his doctor (played in a side-splitting cameo by Kristen Wiig, who once again triumphantly demonstrating here, as she did in KNOCKED UP, that she is the current comedic kingpin of brief cameos) and prepares himself to undergo a colonoscopy.  There is one big problem that befalls Bertram's surgery: At the ill advice of his doctor, he decides to go under for the surgery, but the drugs have a rare and near fatal side effect of shutting his heart down for seven minutes.  Technically, he was dead to the world.  

Not knowing this vital information, Bertram leaves the hospital and then discovers something really peculiar: he is able to see ghosts just as easily as any other living person.  Since he “sees dead people", Bertram rushes back to the doctor for some explanations, which leads to one of GHOST TOWN’s most insidiously funny exchanges.  “Did anything unusual happen during my operation?” he asks Wiig’s semi-nervous and deeply defensive surgeon, to which she replies, “You…uh…died for seven minutes…but it’s okay…we brought you right back.  People die all the time.”  An exasperated Bertram hilariously retorts, “Yeah, but it’s usually just once…at the end!” 

Realizing that he’s getting nowhere with the hospital, Bertram leaves and tries to deal with his newfound paranormal gifts.  He is befriended, of sorts, by a recently deceased New Yorker named Frank Herlihy (played by the typically rock steady Greg Kinnear, always a consummate actor at bridging the gap between drama and comedy), who – before a bus killed him – was actually cheating on his wife with his yoga instructor.  The problem is that Frank deeply regrets hurting his ex, Gwen (Tea Leoni, equally gifted at bridging sentimentality and laughs, and truly wonderful here) and wants to make amends.  Plus, he really despises her new beau (Billy Campbell), despite the fact that he seems pretty decent.   

Frank’s relationship with Bertram is rocky at first, especially considering that the dentist is the kind of man that hates all forms - and I mean all forms - of human contact, alive or dead.  Frank’s other deceased friends, realizing that Bertram is a conduit between their world and the living, compulsively pester Bertram to assist them with dealing with aspects of their past lives they regretfully left unchecked.  This makes Bertram rather annoyed, but the deal-making personality in Frank makes him an offer:  If Bertram is able to successfully break up Gwen with her new boyfriend, then he and his spectral buddies will leave Bertram alone...for good. 

There are some obvious problems with this plan, not to mention fairly predictable occurrences to seeing it through to successful fruition.  Bertram is an unattractive louse that even the easiest of woman would have a hard time falling for, let alone the sharp, educated, and beautiful Gwen.  However, slowly but surely, Bertram is able to transform himself from a miserable, modern day Manhattan Scrooge to a fairly worthy suitor to Gwen and – yes – the two do begin to fall for one another.  All of this grows complicated for all involved, seeing as Frank becomes despondently jealous, Gwen deals with the issues of her past feelings for Frank and her indifference towards her new fiancé and Bertram, and Bertram begins to discover the warmth and allure of human companionship. 

GHOST TOWN not only benefits from the unusual casting of its male lead, but also from its atypical choice of director and writer.  David Koepp, much better known for his action packed summer blockbusters (he famously wrote films like JURASSIC PARK I and II, SPIDER-MAN, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and this year’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, not to mention directing darker films like SECRET WINDOW and STIR OF ECHOES).  He very surprising finds a comfortable grove with the proceedings and has a real knack for neither playing up the film’s comedy too broadly, nor amping up the film’s sentimentality and drama to annoyingly saccharine levels.  He naturally allows GHOST TOWN to amuse audience members while also lightly tugging on their heartstrings without strangling them with weepy overkill.  Whereas most romantic dramedies feel like there are force-feeding us, GHOST TOWN alternatively finds a truly nice balance among its emotional tones.   

The film also has a tender poignancy to it, especially when dealing with the budding relationship between Leoni and Gervais (who have a delightful chemistry that simmers as the film progresses), but also in the subplots involving the other ghosts that need Bertram to help them correct past wrongs in their normal lives that were never put right.  The film finds a genuine heartbeat in these moments: Just look at one crucial moment where Kinnear – via Bertram – is able to communicate his emotional pains to Gwen and a later scene where Bertram aids his other fellow ghosts achieve some semblance of closure to their pre-death existences.  Aside from its obvious flavoring as a romantic comedy, GHOST TOWN becomes a rare feel-good Capra-esque parable about better oneself by bettering others that actually makes audience members feel good instead of incredulously rolling their eyes at the plot developments. 

And then there is Gervias…the great Gervais…who is the solid anchor that has a trickier job than it appears:  He has to be the film’s comedic epicenter while also playing a character that initially is reprehensible and then plausibly makes a turn for the better.  Our involvement in his character is benefited by the way the actor so perfectly is able to portray an ill at ease, tongue-tied, mordant, and stammering level of affectionate joviality.  Gervais’ performance I think will be under-praised for how good he is in smaller, more reflective moments:  Consider one scene where he sees – perhaps for the first time – the pleasure of simply staring at Gwen’s beauty and a later scene where he thinks his mission to woe her over has failed.  Like the best screen comedians, he blends hearty laughs with pathos exceedingly well. 

Alas, it’s the hearty laughs that are Gervais’ true specialty, and he occupies too many laugh-out-loud moments here to mention.  One scene is a masterpiece of overlapping double talk, where Gervais desperately tries to get answers about his new “visions” out of Wiig’s doctor, during which she cuts him off mid-sentence with every query (their respective timing is immaculate…and riotous).  Yet, even miniscule, throw-away moments are inspired too, as is the case where a nurse – just when Gervais checks himself out of the hospital – politely tells him to “Come back real soon.”  Gervais’ response is perfectly ironic and scathing, but not over sold: “What a terrible thing to say in a hospital!” he mutters back.  Gervais’ shrewd abilities to bring huge laughs out of moments of pure public discomfort permeate every pore of GHOST TOWN, and his presence in the film as an unconventional leading man makes the largely conventional nature of the screenplay breathe with so much more refreshing authenticity.   

If you doubt me, just imagine GHOST TOWN with a more obvious, traditional, square jawed, GQ cover model-esque leading man and you’ll understand what I’m getting at here.  McConaughey's hairless and ripped pecs have nothing over Gervais' acid-tongued, clumsy appeal.

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