Friday, September 19, 2008

Ghost Town: Dead funny!

Ghost Town (2008) • View trailer for Ghost Town
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and too harshly, for sexual candor, brief profanity and fleeting drug references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.19.08
Buy DVD: Ghost Town • Buy Blu-Ray: Ghost Town [Blu-ray]

Director/co-scripter David Koepp's clever and witty screenplay has much to do with the success of Ghost Town, but the film belongs to Ricky Gervais.

The popular British actor/comic, well known for the TV shows The Office and Extras, makes a smashing leap to big-screen stardom in a role perfectly suited to his talents. As dentist Bertram Pincus, Gervais displays a hilariously misanthropic streak that's softened just enough by the woebegone face of a lonely dog abandoned by its beloved master.
After a hospital "incident" leaves dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) with
the ability to see and communicate with the deceased, he's besieged by
phantoms who beg him to help complete final tasks that will allow them to
escape their Earthly purgatory.

Pincus has no use for people, not even his clinic partner or the many patients who settle nervously into his chair. They're all talkers, and he derives far too much satisfaction from silencing the chatter with cotton plugs, gunk-laden impression trays or enthusiastic applications of Novocain.

If requested to hold the elevator where he resides in a tony Manhattan flat, he'll pretend to do so while stealthily stabbing the "close" button, then displaying a faux apologetic expression as the doors close on an exasperated neighbor.

In short, Pincus is an unredeemable cad, but in a fussy, Felix Unger manner that makes him somehow endearing.

Because we know the truth, and that's the beauty of Gervais' performance: Despite his snarky behavior, Pincus is a man in desperate pain, and one who needs to see the light.

Instead, he sees ghosts.

A routine colonoscopy is punctuated by an "incident" with the general anesthesia that leaves Pincus clinically dead for seven minutes; his subsequent discovery of this catastrophe emerges during a conversation with his surgeon and the hospital's legal watchdog. The start-stop hiccups of this "chat" are to die for: perfectly timed by all three actors, and marvelously choreographed by Koepp.

And certain to be appreciated by any viewer who ever tried to extract candor from a doctor conditioned by lawyers to say nothing.

The upshot, before Pincus can mutter "I see dead people," is precisely that: He's left with the ability to interact with the multitude of ghosts crowding the streets of New York. This isn't the slightest bit scary, merely annoying ... because all these shades, by definition, are stuck in their Earth-bound purgatory until they're able to complete some unfinished business.

Suddenly this dentist, who wants nothing to do with anybody, is the only hope for a legion of frustrated and dispirited spirits.

Sheer genius.

Koepp and co-writer John Kamps could have let it go at that, allowing Gervais to snarl and mope his way through the entire film, but they've much more on their minds ... which is why Ghost Town is beguiling and sentimental, in addition to being quite funny. Indeed, the final act is unexpectedly touching and manages to achieve a level of aw-shucks poignance that hearkens back to 1990's Ghost.

Pincus' "spiritual guide" turns out to be Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a tuxedo-clad cad who, awhile back, had the bad taste to be hit by a cross-town bus just as his wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni), discovered that he was cheating on her. Frank believes he's stuck on Earth in order to make this up to Gwen by "saving" her from marrying the wrong next guy.

Ah, but the truth is much subtler.

Somehow able to hold the rest of Pincus' ghostly tormentors at bay, Frank persuades the dour dentist to insinuate himself into Gwen's life and raise doubts about her new lover. Pincus is surprised to discover that Gwen lives in his apartment building: that she is, in fact, one of his numerous closed-elevator-door victims.

Not a promising beginning.

Actually, Gwen's new fella — Billy Campbell, as Richard — is a noble, altruistic lawyer who does good deeds; he couldn't be a better human being, which Pincus discovers fairly quickly.

But this unaccustomed close proximity to another person — to Gwen — also awakens something else in Pincus ... and therein lies this story's sweetness.

Leoni has lost none of her own well-honed instincts for comic timing, which is a good thing; a lesser foil would be overwhelmed by Gervais' mastery of the skillfully wielded bon mot. She's also apparently ageless, having lost none of the healthy, surfer-chick good looks that made her so immediately memorable during small debut appearances in 1991's Switch and 1992's A League of Their Own.

More crucially, she's a skillfully subtle actress, which is essential for this story, because Gwen must navigate an impressively broad emotional arc. Leoni does so, and with reasonable conviction.

Kinnear's Frank is smooth, suave and perhaps even more self-centered than Pincus; to that extent, they're made for each other. But Kinnear, like Gervais, comes with his own inherent charm; if one must be fed lines by a discorporeal Cyrano de Bergerac, then he's not such a bad choice.

Some of this film's gags tread well-worn territory, as when Pincus tries to cover his many frustrated remarks directed at Frank, because of course everybody else thinks our dentist is talking to himself. But Gervais and Kinnear make even these familiar bits fresh, which just goes to prove that timing and delivery are everything.

Aasif Mandvi has a pivotal role as Pincus' partner, Dr. Prashar, who serves as an emotional catalyst at a key moment.

Kristen Wiig is a stitch as Pincus' colonoscopy surgeon, and the imposing Michael-Leon Wooley is equally funny as the aforementioned hospital lawyer.

You'll spot several familiar faces among the supplicating ghosts, notably Dana Ivey and Alan Ruck; all are memorable, even the three anonymous construction workers. And the naked guy.

The script isn't perfect; a few details slide away clumsily, such as Gwen's massive dog, which pops up for a few droll scenes and then apparently gets left in some closet for the rest of the film. And the situation with Richard reaches its climax awfully quickly, and quite unconvincingly.

But this is small stuff. Ghost Town is a thoroughly entertaining blend of comedy, romance and ghostly redemption, and a perfect antidote to the deluge of cinematic swill we've endured for the past several weeks.

This is how I choose to see the 2008 summer movie season out.

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