[18 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Hollywood used to excel at what could best be described as the “little” movie. You know the type - small in scope, limited in appeal, and never overreaching beyond its certain purpose. Prior to the high concept ‘80s, lots of films were ‘little’. But ever since stars became commodities to market like cinematic stock, Tinsel Town has taken the “bigger is boffo” attitude with almost everything. A drama must deal with issues of interpersonal earth-shattering design. A comedy must be over the top and hilariously hyperactive. All of this works against Ricky Gervais and his latest effort, Ghost Town. Anyone coming to this movie thinking the Office/Extras star is out to create a wacky spook show is in for quite a disappointment. Instead, this is a little film that easily achieves its entertainment aims.
Dentist Bertram Pincus hates people. It’s one of the main reasons he enjoys his chosen profession. A major misanthrope, he spends his days delivering pain, his nights avoiding everyone around him. When a routine medical procedure goes awry, Dr. Pincus discovers an unusual side effect - he can see dead people. Actually, they are the ghosts roaming around Manhattan, looking for someone living to help them complete their Earthly business. One such apparition is Frank Herlihy. A horrible womanizer when he was alive, he now wants Dr. Pincus to help him break up his widow’s impending marriage. If our hero doesn’t agree, Frank will allows the rest of New York’s spirit population to persistently hound him - and with such a large metropolis, there’s a lot of spooks to go around. Of course, once he gets to know Gwen, Dr. Pincus finds himself falling in love. This only complicates things for both the living, and the recently deceased.
Skillful and subtle, with enough hilarity to match its equally ample heart, Ghost Town is the Fall’s sunniest surprise. Going in, we expect the standard star driven vamp, Gervais given free reign to work his wise-ass magic on us unsuspecting Yanks. Even with a script from accomplished scribes David Koepp (who also directs) and John Kamps, we keep waiting for the anarchic adlibbing to step in and swamp everything. Yet aside from a couple of clever confrontations, our lead is in likeable loser mode. He’s not meant to overpower the plot. Instead, Dr. Pincus is a pawn in a much bigger cosmic comedy. Koepp and Kamps keep the humor low key and realistic. We don’t get goofy ghost-busting gags or sequences of sci-fi special effects. Instead, this movie makes its point via characterization and emotion, two things we don’t expect from such a seemingly high concept creation.
Again, Gervais is quite remarkable here, his face gestures reminding one of an uncanny combination of both Laurel and Hardy. Even within a completely contemporary setting, the pear-shaped Brit reminds one of film legends past. It’s not only his demeanor, which comes across as cultured if crazy. No, everything about Pincus, from his sour world view to a reluctance to embrace his supernatural situation screams Hollywood’s Golden Age. The only way we know we’re visiting 2008 comes whenever Greg Kinnear’s pesky specter comes along. With his used car salesman patter and constant Blackberry fidgeting, he instantly brings Ghost Town up to date. As a character, his cruel adulterer is hard to embrace. But since he channels his needs through Gervais, we end up empathizing with his paranormal position.
Indeed, a lot of Ghost Town is centered on helping the dead “settle” their spirits. Koepp sets up the potentially maudlin moments of closure in such a way that they feel organic, not forced. In fact, there are a few handkerchief sequences spread out across the movie’s many narrative threads. Co-star Tea Leoni makes for an easy to accept love interest, her openness matching Gervais’ closed off creep perfectly. There is a great chemistry between the two, an easiness and clear compatibility that answers any romantic questions the audience may have. This is not a movie centering on passions or lust. Instead, Ghost Town wants to travel in tenderness and smaller triumphs. It manages this material with ease.
Certainly, some will see Koepp’s spiritual sense as a little pat. This is the kind of movie that explains human/spirit interactions with an unexpected sneeze, and the flaring of available light the post-modern equivalent of an angel earning its wings. There is no discussion of God or the afterlife, no link up to religion, faith, or a sense of the sacred. The phantoms here are like leftovers from Poltergeist, desperate to reconnect with their loved ones (or in one hilarious case, their bitter rival) before falling into the realm beyond…whatever that is. Indeed, the references to other cinematic spook shows, from the Murray/Akyroyd classic to calmer entertainments like Ghost, keep the film from floating away on its own New Age artifice. Of course, it helps to have Gervais at the center. He could defuse the most potent source of saintly mumbo jumbo with a simple comic stare.
In fact, for those not familiar with his intercontinental cult status, Ghost Town will be a revelation. As a supporting player in such films as For Your Consideration and Night at the Museum, he never got a real chance to shine. Instead, he appeared pigeonholed in a predetermined cameo conceit. But here, Gervais elevates Dr. Pincus into one of the better leads for a revisionist RomCom. It’s rare to see the schlub succeed, to watch the man with the thicker waistline and jowly demeanor win over the women with the sheer force of his prickly (if hilarious) personality. Of course, established star power can overcome any physical (or psychological) limitations, but Ghost Town is one of the rare films that earns its humble happy ending.
All of this adds up to a film that manages to make its way deep into your heart without feeling overly manipulative or mannered. Indeed unlike another similarly styled movie from 1993 (the trite Robert Downey Jr. effort Heart and Souls), Ghost Town controls all its facets - fantastical and otherwise - to deliver a decent ‘little’ entertainment. Remember, if you’re looking for outsized scope or a dimensional dissection of the supernatural, you’ll need to focus on other films. But if you want to see a great comedian giving a true performance within a movie that works both comically and emotionally, this film will definitely satisfy. It’s nice to see that Hollywood can turn out the well meaning minor gem when it wants to. Here’s hoping Ghost Town‘s shine inspires others to drop the pretense and aim a little lower. As this movie proves, such an undersized focus can produce a refreshing big screen experience.