As a comedy, Ghost Town is all about riding the everyman shtick Ricky Gervais perfected on the original version of “The Office” and later “Extras” as far as it can go, which turns out to be the source of its best moments and weakest liabilities. It’s not that the movie isn’t funny, or sweet, or as emotionally involving as a lighthearted comedy can get without treading into the murky area of melodrama; it’s all three, and it’s even genuine and less falsely manipulative than many comedies. But director David Koepp — who co-wrote the screenplay with John Kamps, with whom he also wrote Zathura, and who’s probably best known for writing Jurassic Park and Spider-Man — often sacrifices punch for length and wit for digressions, turning a snappy comedy into a slightly draggy one. It’s that lack of control over some of the scenes, that sense of mild indulgence, that keeps Ghost Town from being anything beyond a decent little comedy. Still, Gervais’ skill is enough to help the movie skate over some of the weak patches, and the movie’s kindness mostly edges out the problem areas.
The film opens with Frank (Greg Kinnear) walking the streets of Manhattan, juggling calls on his Blackberry to deal with a wife and a mistress and, inexplicably, wearing a tuxedo. When a window air-conditioning unit shakes loose and comes plummeting toward him, he steps into the street to avoid it, only to be hit by a bus in a remarkably blood-free killing whose effects take place mostly offscreen. Frank wanders back into frame, still clad in the tuxedo he’s now apparently doomed to wear in the afterlife, and he quickly realizes he’s now a ghost. But this is a comedy, and Koepp doesn’t have time for Frank to undergo any level of existential crisis about his situation, so instead of doubting his own deadness or attempting to figure it out, Frank responds with a mildly pissed, “You cannot be serious.” Frank quickly accepts this particular universe’s rules, so quickly that he just seems to intuit them: Dead people often become ghosts, they can pass through solid objects, and the living take no notice except to sneeze when they walk through a spirit.
But Koepp has to pack all those assumptions close together so he can set up the actual hero, Bertram Pincus (Gervais), a dentist who values peace and quiet over human interaction. To make a surprisingly lengthy setup brief: Pincus goes in for bowel surgery (the script needed to get him to the hospital, and poop is a good go-to) and winds up dying briefly thanks to a mishap with the anesthetic. After being discharged, he’s able to see the ghosts who still aimlessly roam New York and who soon figure out that Pincus can hear them. He’s hounded by dozens of them, all begging for help setting something right with the people they left behind, but Frank corrals them and promises Pincus he can live in solitude if he just helps Frank. Gervais and Kinnear have a solid chemistry together, aided in large part by the fact they’re playing slightly tweaked versions of their own screen personas: Kinnear as the occasionally cad-like but ultimately good guy, Gervais as the long-suffering sad sack who lashes out at pretty much anyone. Frank needs Pincus’ help taking care of his ex-wife, Gwen (Tea Leoni), who’s now engaged to a lawyer, Richard (Billy Campbell), who Frank is convinced is some kind of scam artist.
The bulk of the film revolves around Pincus’ efforts to befriend Gwen and attempt to sabotage her relationship so he can get Frank off his back, and it’s in the middle section of the film that Koepp’s admittedly cute and workable idea begins to lose a little traction. There’s almost no one better than Gervais for milking an awkward line of dialogue or rambling on in the face of certain shame, painting himself into a corner and knowing he has no way out. But too often Koepp seems to have constructed the scenes around this ability instead of allowing it to color them, and so what should feel like a series of related conversations tends to wind up feeling like a chain of blatant set-ups for Gervais to painfully stumble through. No one else can see the ghosts, so Pincus winds up saying things aloud that are misinterpreted by bartenders/doormen/passersby; Pincus is unable to make small talk with Gwen and winds up insulting her; Pincus asks a fellow dentist, an Indian man (Aasif Mandvi), how to use dental instruments to “extract information” from someone being interrogated. They’re cute moments in minor ways — Gervais is a master at being flustered — but after a while they become predictable in the sense that you start to pick up the clues Koepp is planting a given scene that will lead to Pincus’ inevitable fumbling. After a while, what was a character trait becomes an exploited tic.
Yet it’s impossible to hate the film, and it’s even easy to like despite its aesthetic flaws and pacing problems, and that’s only because of Gervais. He delivers every punch line with that sense of a man so tortured by his life that he has no other recourse than to watch it go by without him, and he’s the perfect choice for a character who’s a jerk for at least two-thirds of the film but still has to remain likeable to viewers and viable as the central figure in a comedy. And Koepp and Kamps feed him plenty of decent jokes that are amplified by his skill as a comic actor. Kinnear’s completely at ease, too, and even manages to carve out a solid little transformational arc. Even Leoni does more than you’d expect from a simple story like this one, giving Gwen a touch of, if not complexity, then at least genuine humanity. That’s the core of the movie: It’s small and occasionally unpolished, but confident, and undeniably heartfelt. If it’s ultimately predictable — and films like this are usually going to work out in one of maybe three possible ways, maximum — then at least it never pretended to be anything other than a mild-mannered, earnest, human comedy. And by that measure, it’s a success.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Are You Having a Laugh?
Film | September 20, 2008 | Comments ()