Monday, September 22, 2008

Ghost Town

"Ghost Town" is one of those minor miracle films that one who pays enough attention to film release schedules and box office grosses is always surprised to see pop up. For one thing, it's three main actors are somewhat well known, but none of them are major money makers-one of them is very famous in the United Kingdom, but not exactly at the pinnacle of fame in America. And it also is opening on a very crowded weekend for movies, and in the middle of September which is commonly a dumping ground for studios as they get ready for their big award pushers. So it was no surprise to me when Dreamworks decided to slash their release for "Ghost Town" a whole thousand screens, but it was a surprise to me when the film actually turned out to be very very good-a somewhat conventional romantic comedy formula that is elevated by three terrific performances. 

Ricky Gervais is known to some folks here, mostly as the creator of the British version of "The Office," and than a somewhat popular HBO show "Extras." Aside from a few bit parts in some American films-"Night at the Museum," and "For Your Consideration" off the top of my head-this is his first top billing role. He plays Bertram Pincus, a most unpleasant dentist who just wants to be left alone. When his fellow dentist comes in and tells him that the receptionist had a baby recently, Bertram gives a small smile, but soon runs away while everyone's back is turned. He is rude to nearly everyone. On the gurney for his colonoscopy, he comments on the entire lack of privacy, and how one of the doctors looks like he is "on a field trip to the hospital." While on the operating table he ends up dying for seven minutes, and when he is revived he discovers that he has the ability to see dead people. Not decayed and disturbing like the dead people in "The Sixth Sense," but looking quite like they did when they were alive-even wearing what they died in. He is annoyed by several of them asking him to complete some unfinished work, and this is where he meets Frank (Greg Kinnear). Frank died by getting hit by a bus, right after a phone call with his wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) where she discovered that he was having an affair. She is getting remarried to a bad man, and Frank wants Bertram to try and stop it-and if he does it, than all the dead people will stop bothering him. 

Gervais certainly isn't going very far from his bitter characters roots with this, but that is really what he knows. It certainly is a nice test to adjust him to American audiences, especially if he wants to be in future projects. He is very funny playing a character that wants to be anything but funny. Upon our first meeting with him-where he shoves some cotton into the mouth of a patient who will not shut up-we know exactly what type of character arc to expect from Bertram, but Gervais elevates this formulaic material into something much funnier and much more enjoyment. I was reminded of this year's "Smart People," which took a common mid-life crisis indie story and turned it into something much smarter. Gervais and the wonderful dry and sarcastic Tea Leoni have a few winning scenes together-and during the obvious "confession' scenes towards the end, work well to boost us out of some rather conventional moments. And lastly there is Greg Kinnear, who brings a surprising amount of poignancy to the role, as a man who is seeing all of his flaws too late. And what really adds to the surprise of this film is how under the radar these three actors are to the common audience. But it proves that to make a successful comedy one doesn't need to go straight to the common comedic choices-they just need to get good actors. Leoni has been very funny in films like "You Kill Me" or "Flirting with Disaster." Why isn't she ever given a chance to showcase these talents a bit more?

The script-written by David Koepp, oddly enough-does cover its familiar ground, but also has its charm and originality. I liked the concept of the living having unfinished business, and how that prevents the dead from being able to move on. It was a nice twist to the typical dead wanting their last say in things, which is actually something that really divided this film from "The Sixth Sense," which one must draw comparison to. Koepp's script does a good job balancing the comedy and the heart, which comes in during the second half, including a very sweet montage where Bertram finally begins to go about helping the dead folk. And Gervais manages the dramatic areas of the film well too, but never losing that charm that makes him such a good comedian. I was upset we never saw him kiss Leoni, just for my own personal curiosity of what it looks like for David Brent to kiss someone.

It's hard to write a lot for a film like "Ghost Town," which is just a pleasant, funny, and rather sweet trip to the movies. A comedy that is subtle with its jokes, rare for a movie getting a big release in an odd release schedule. It has its flaws, yes-mostly just the familiarity of the story. But its execution (no pun intended) is better than the average romantic comedy, and the performances penetrates the funny bone many times. I hope it has legs because its one of the better mainstream films that is around at the moment, and a great boost for Gervais as a leading man.

*** of ****


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