Ghost Town

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/19/08 00:00:00

"Blah Spirit"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

With the back-to-back creations of the original British version of “The Office,” a show that has already been enshrined as one of the all-time great televisions series, and the equally impressive follow-up “Extras,” Ricky Gervais is unquestionably the reigning comedic genius of our time--the only real competition that he has right now is Judd Apatow and unlike Apatow, Gervais knows how to keep things from dragging on too long for their own good. Therefore, it is kind of a shock that he would choose for his first big role in a feature film (following brief appearances in such movies as “For Your Consideration,” “Night at the Museum” and “Stardust”) a project as thoroughly innocuous as the decidedly lame and fairly irritating fantasy-comedy “Ghost Town.” Oh, from a commercial standpoint, it makes sense--it is pretty much a solo show form him within the confines of an expensive American film that will likely be seen by millions of moviegoers. However, from an artistic standpoint, the decision is fairly mystifying because the film is a drag from start to finish--the kind of high-concept programmer that could have featured virtually any name actor in the lead role without making much of a difference to the end product and which features none of the scathing wit or cleverness that one might logically expect to see from him based on his previous projects.

Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a British dentist residing in Manhattan who seems to dedicate all of his time cultivating his general loathing of all mankind by isolating himself from them as much as possible--the kind of guy who will start hitting the “Door Close” button on the elevator the moment he sees you heading for the door. One day, Bertram goes into the hospital for a routine colonoscopy and when he wakes up from the surgery, he inexplicably finds himself being pursued by people who seem surprised and oddly delighted that he can see them, especially since it appears that no one else can. When he returns to the hospital to try to get to the bottom of why he is suddenly experiencing these strange visions, his surgeon (Kristen Wiig) informs him that during the surgery, a screw-up involving the anesthesia resulted in Bertram technically dying on the operating table for about seven minutes before being resuscitated. The good news is that the anesthesiologist was fired as part of the hospital’s strict “three strikes” policy. The bad news is that Bertram now has the ability to see and communicate with all the restless spirits haunting the streets of New York and inevitably, they all want him to do something for them (find a teddy bear or complete a mob hit) so that they can finally resolve the conflicts that are keeping them there on Earth and allow them to move on to the next world.

Of course, Bertram wants nothing to do with any of them but as he soon discovers, it is much more difficult to hide yourself away from the dead, who have a habit of popping up everywhere, than the living and he finally agrees to help out one especially pesky poltergeist in the hopes that the rest will leave them alone. This is the ghost of Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a two-timing type who met his maker while trying to smooth things over regarding a love nest that he was trying to rent for his mistress. Now, maybe a year or so after his demise, his former wife, Gwen (Tea Leoni) is about to get married again and Frank, who is convinced that the new man is a loathsome bounder who is only interested in her money and that his purpose for remaining on Earth is to prevent her from marrying the jerk, enlists Bertram’s help to plant enough seeds of doubt in her mind to convince her to call it off. However, as Bertram tries to do just that, he makes a couple of unexpected discoveries. The first is that the new suitor (Billy Campbell) is a hunky human rights lawyer with not a single evident character flaw. The second is that he begins to develop unexpected feelings for Gwen himself, a development that finds him inspired to finally try to be a better man for once, much to the consternation of Frank.

“Ghost Town” was co-written and directed by David Koepp, a Hollywood veteran who has written screenplays for such big-name directors as Steven Spielberg (the “Jurassic Park” films, “War of the Worlds” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), Brian DePalma (“Carlito’s Way” and “Mission Impossible) and Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) and directed such intriguing smaller projects as “The Trigger Effect” and “Stir of Echoes” (which “Ghost Town” almost feels like a parody of at times). He clearly knows how to write blockbuster material featuring elaborate action set-pieces but it quickly becomes apparent that when it comes to the seemingly ordinary matter of putting two or three people in a room exchanging witty banter, he is pretty much all thumbs. The material is the kind of standard-issue ghost fantasy that we have seen countless times before in films ranging from classics like “Topper” to such long-forgotten items as the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle “Hearts and Souls” but Koepp never gets around to finding a unique spin to make it more interesting. The comedy, for the most part, never really catches fire--there are too many scenes that either involve Bertram talking to ghosts while ordinary people look at him oddly or stammering out strange and half-formed statements while Gwen looks at him oddly--and the sudden turn towards pathos in the last half-hour, during which our anti-hero finally decides to simultaneously join the world of the living and aid the world of the undead while Frank finally begins to understand just how much he hurt Gwen while he was alive, just drags things down even farther. Every once in a while, Gervais comes up with a one-liner that is so funny and precise that it feels like something he improvised but even though those moments are refreshing enough, they only serve to highlight the utter ordinariness of the film surrounding them. To his credit, however, Koepp does resist the urge to turn the film into an effects showcase and even comes up with a lovely method of signifying what happens when living person unknowingly walks through one of the countless unseen ghosts running through the streets.

One of the strangest aspects of “Ghost Town” is just how uninteresting and unappealing the main characters really are. Of course, Gervais has made a career out of playing uninteresting and unappealing people but in those cases, he managed to do so in way that was somehow strangely interesting and appealing--even at his most cringe-worthy, you still found yourself sympathizing with him in a weird sort of way. If that kind of character had been put in the center of “Ghost Town,” the movie might have turned into something interesting--can you imagine the sight of David Brent trying to negotiate deals with the dead?--but instead, Gervais has been asked to portray a schnook who isn’t very compelling to watch and while he acquits himself as well as he can under the circumstances, it is a performance that never takes advantage of his unique gifts as a performer. As the spirit who hasn’t let death get in the way of his perpetual self-involvement, Greg Kinnear overplays the smarm to such a degree that you may find yourself flinching as much as Bertram every time he appears. Strangely enough, it is Tea Leoni, an actress who usually strikes me as the human equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard, who winds up turning in the film’s most appealing performance--for once, she comes across as sweet and funny and actually manages to pull off the turn towards the sentimental in the final reels.

Like I said earlier, if “Ghost Town” had starred practically anyone other than Ricky Gervais, I think I might have responded to it a little better simply because my expectations would not have been quite as high. However, the sight of him marking time with material that isn’t as much extraordinary as it is extra-ordinary is a kind of a bummer--with comedic brilliance at such a premium these days, it is depressing to see one of the few people capable of doing something truly brilliant wasting his time and energy on something so pedestrian. However, the upside to all of this is that if “Ghost Town” goes on to be the big crowd-pleasing hit that it has clearly been designed to be, it may give Hollywood enough confidence in Gervais’ abilities to allow him to make a film that ties in better with his specific comedic gifts. If that were to happen, then I could perhaps excuse “Ghost Town” as a banal-but-necessary step in the right direction. Until that time, however, I can only look upon it as banal and fairly unnecessary.

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