by Mel Valentin
"Ghost Town," a comedy-drama co-written and directed by David Koepp ("Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "War of the Worlds," "Secret Window," "Spider-Man," "The Lost World," "Jurassic Park") and starring British comedian-actor Ricky Gervais ("Extras," the original, British incarnation of "The Office") in his first lead role in an American film is, alas, less, much less, than the sum of its parts. Light on comedy and heavy on drama, especially of the sentimental, heart-tugging kind, "Ghost Town" isn’t the auspicious debut fans of Ricky Gervais’ British work were hoping to see. It’s also predictable, derivative, and, worst of all, unfunny (especially past the mid-point and through the third act), only occasionally saved by Gervais’ easygoing comic timing and watchable supporting turns by Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni.Bertram Pincus (Gervais), a misanthropic Upper West Side (as in Manhattan) dentist, studiously avoids human contact beyond the day-to-day demands of his profession. Pincus may be too young to be a curmudgeon, but he’s not too old to be a jerk. His dental partner, Dr. Prashar (Aasif Mandvi), barely tolerates him. When Pincus goes into the hospital for a colonoscopy, he dies for almost seven minutes. When Pincus recovers from his trip to the great beyond and back, everything seems fine, until he discovers that he can see dead people. And they can see him back.
"Close encounters of the heart-tugging kind."
Almost immediately, Pincus acquires an unwanted entourage, ghosts hoping Pincus will help them resolve their unfinished business. One ghost in particular, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a business killed in a random accident, implores Pincus to help him with his wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni). Gwen seems to have moved on. She’s newly engaged to a human rights lawyer (Billy Campbell). She has a seemingly fulfilling life as an archaeologist and a new exhibit opening at the natural history museum in less than a week. Frank, however, thinks Gwen’s fiancé is really after her money, money she acquired from Frank’s insurance policy. Pincus agrees to help on one condition: that Frank keeps the other ghosts away.
Koepp and his co-writer John Kamps beg, borrow, and steal plot elements from familiar genre films (e.g. The Sixth Sense, Ghost), but add a comedic twist. Even there, a close analog was made fifteen years ago, Heart and Souls with Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role. The tagline, “He sees dead people... and they annoy him,” sums up the one-line premise closely. For Ghost Town to have any narrative momentum, Pincus has to undergo a believable transformation from curmudgeon to anti-curmudgeon, which, unsurprisingly, gives Pincus a recognizable character arc. What Koepp and Kamps don’t give us, however, are enough jokes or gags to cover Ghost Town’s lugubrious 102-minute running time.Koepp seemed to believe that having Ricky Gervais as the lead, with Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni backing him up, would be enough to bring the funny to the jokes and gags Koepp and Kamps slipped into their screenplay. It does, but only for the first 30 minutes or so before the premise sorts itself out into a formulaic romantic comedy (as if there’s any other kind). It almost doesn’t matter if Pincus ends up with Gwen or if Frank does his good deed and can leave the earthly realm for heaven or a reasonable facsimile, in large part because Pincus’ stubbornness and cluelessness are insufficient to hang an entire film on. Gervais, Kinnear, and Leoni all deserved better from Koepp and Kamps, but then again so did we.
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originally posted: 09/19/08 04:23:16