Ghost Town

2008-09-19 (General release)

“New York is lousy with ghosts,” complains Frank (Greg Kinnear), a recent entry into the ranks. He’s not happy about it. An unfaithful husband who was run down by a bus, Frank is now stuck on earth until he resolves unfinished business — or some such nonsense. The rules for ghosts Ghost Town aren’t exactly sensible and are mostly borrowed from other movies. But as each is revealed, it’s added to the serial obstacles for the primary non-ghost in the mix, a dentist named Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais).

Frank meets Bertram early in the proceedings, as he and a bunch of other Manhattan-based ghosts discover that this living person can see and hear them. Before you can say “Whoopi Goldberg,” a rationale is provided: when Pincus undergoes a minor surgery and unnecessarily takes a general anesthetic, he dies, “just a little bit,” according to his surgeon (Kristin Wiig). Specifically, as the film notes a few times, he dies for seven minutes, long enough to leave him attuned to the unresolved dead and so, prey to their repeated pleadings that he help them finish their business. This means he’s beleaguered with requests from Frank, who takes to calling him “Pink-ass,” as if it’s the funniest joke he’s ever heard, and so warrants Bertram’s withering assessment: “You’re the bizarre effect of some poorly administered anesthesia.”

The men’s odd-coupling is intensified when Bertram finds himself scurrying along the sidewalk trying to escape the veritable herd of ghosts who follow him like they’re in a Verizon Wireless commercial. A self-isolating grump, Bertram is keen to lose these pesky souls. (He does seem peculiarly able to do so when the plot calls for it, sneaking out back doors and hiding from them his address at work — which is right next door to his apartment building, by the way — when the plot demands it.) Still, his distaste for existing with a perpetual crowd on his heels leads him to agree to ludicrously contrived deal with Frank, namely, to convince his widow, Gwen (Téa, Leoni), not to marry a self-important human rights lawyer named Richard (Billy Campbell). “You want your quiet life back,” Frank tells Bertram, “I’m good at talking people into things, it’s what I do.” And with that, Bertram initiates his plan to worm his own way into Gwen’s affections, or at least get her to wonder that she might not be so in love with Richard as she thinks.

The set-up, of course, means that Bertram and Gwen will fall in love, each being in a different state of neediness. It does so happen that they live in the same building, and that Bertram has not held the elevator for and stolen a cab from her in the rain, leading her to call him out on their first meeting: “What you are is a little bit of a jerk.” It also happens that she’s into dead people, or more precisely, into mummies. Her current project is a thematically resonant museum exhibit called “Voices of the Dead,” showcasing relics from 1500 BC. As she’s trying to determine how her favorite mummy died, she welcomes Bertram’s offer to check its teeth. In her workroom at the museum, Bertram reveals a rather quick humor, which leads to one of this predictable film’s more endearing scenes, a bit of delicate timing in which he talks smart and crabby and she does her best not to laugh.

The scene reminds you, in case you’ve forgotten, of Leoni’s essential brilliance, and of how much you’d like to see her on screen more often. And though Ghost Town would have benefited from featuring her in every scene, it instead uses her to “develop” Bertram and help him recognize that he’s not, deep down, a curmudgeon, but really just wants to love and be loved — just like everyone else who fronts a romantic comedy. Gwen occasions the more palatable, sweetly offbeat versions of this formula, as when she invites Bertram to come along on a walk with her adorably gargantuan Great Dane, or when she invites him to inspect her teeth while they’re seated on a city bench and framed by ghosts trying desperately to get Bertram’s attention. One of these ghosts is male and naked (another rule being that ghosts are condemned to spend their unfinished-business time in whatever they were wearing when they died), which provides for just the sort of inanity you’d imagine.

As you endure it, you can’t help but be thankful for Leoni’s precision and classically screwballish physicality. Yes, Gwen is fated to complete her own “unfinished business” and save Bertram to boot. Lucky for the rest of us mortals, she does so with a light touch.

RATING 4 / 10