Ghost Town serves as a very nice vehicle for the comedy stylings of Ricky Gervais, the Brit originator of The Office and showbiz-savvy (not really) star of Extras. Gervais does clueless, wounded misanthropy well, and his Ghost Town character, Dr. Bertram Pincus, is that in spades — lonely, needy, but so hostile to the rest of the human race that you’d never know it.
But one day Dr. Pincus has a minor surgical procedure. Something goes amiss with the anesthesia, and he dies — for seven minutes. When he wakes, he sees dead people. And hears them. When they realize he can see and hear them, they won’t leave him alone. They need favors from him, but he isn’t having it.
“Start without me.”
Greg Kinnear is a heel who needs Pincus to look in on the widow (Tea Leoni) he left behind. He’s the one who sticks to the good doctor like glue until Pincus agrees to help keep the lady from marrying her latest suitor. Trouble is, Pincus sees the lovely Egyptologist and he’s smitten. Pity he doesn’t know how to charm a woman.
Gervais is something of a genius at the accidental put-down, the friendly “Don’t be an idiot” that serves as his pickup lines to Gwen. He does great “What fresh hell is this?” takes at every new challenge to his comfy, solitary life.
But the terrific thing in this romantic comedy is the way Hollywood’s best and brightest lift their games to match the formidable Gervais in witty exchanges that often involve both characters talking at once, at cross-purposes, hilariously interrupting, avoiding and connecting. This is mere practice for Gervais, spitting out lines to live people while dead people are distracting him with their whining.
Kinnear gives us both cocky smarm and pathos.
“You are a sad little man.”
Pincus — “And you are a lying bigamist corpse!”
“I’m an adulterer. There’s a difference.”
Leoni is her sassy best, and takes a moment here and there to break our hearts at her loss. (She is a widow, after all.)
Best of all is Kristen Wiig, the Saturday Night Live comic who plays a surgeon who can’t quite bring herself to admit that something went wrong with the possibly litigious Pincus’s surgery. Their banter is the comedy of frustration incarnate. She won’t spit it out, or let him blurt out a question that will force her to lie.
Director David Koepp reworked a John Kamps script into a movie that is very close, in plot, themes and tone, to an old Robert Downey Jr. comedy, Heart and Souls. The dead have “unfinished business.” Pincus is an incomplete person. Each can make the other whole.
It’s a mild-mannered movie that may leave some waiting for the explicit sex, raw language and outrageousness of most Hollywood comedies these days. But as he did with the TV show that Hollywood adapted, to great effect, Mr. Gervais shows he has a few PG-13 tricks to teach this R-rated business, if we just let him.
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni, Greg Kinnear, Kristen Wiig.
- Director: David Koepp.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Industry rating: PG-13 for some strong language, sexual humor and drug references.