Ghost Town

Ricky Gervais has attracted a lot of fans and probably innumerable detractors in the past ten years or so. One of the originators (with Stephen Merchant) of the U.K. version of The Office (from which the U.S. series starring Steve Carrel derived), he went on to launch another British TV series (Extras, which he also co-wrote and starred in) and an ad lib podcast program (The Ricky Gervais Show) that some saw as going right over the top—both in taste and political incorrectness.

I have always thought Ricky Gervais was great—hilarious and fearless—and I’ve been quite willing to overlook his abrasiveness for the sake of the 75 percent of the time when I find him bang-on as a critic, a “small-p” political commentator, a wit and a stand-up comic. Still, knowing his penchant for going too far, I made no effort to catch him in his earlier movie appearances, which included A Night at the Museum and For Your Consideration, but after watching him in a couple of television interviews when his newest movie came out in the fall of 2008, I was encouraged to think that Gervais would finally be playing a role about as straight as was humanly possible for him. I therefore headed off with a certain amount of eagerness to see Ghost Town.

I was not disappointed. Ghost Town is a charming film with a plot that hangs together very well, and features note-perfect performances from its three major cast members (Téa Leoni and Greg Kinnear appear with Gervais). I was also happy to discover in it a movie with a life-after-death outcome that even an atheist can live with – not only for my own sake, but also because it meant that Gervais hadn’t needed to compromise his own much-articulated position of non-belief too much in order to take on this role.

Ghost Town is billed as a romantic comedy and it has no ambitions beyond that, nor does it need them. Gervais stars as Bertram Pincus, a Park-Avenue-type dentist who is a misanthrope to the very bottom of his heart—until he has a near-death experience during a colonoscopy. Unaware that anything untoward has happened during the procedure (the hospital doesn’t tell him about his brief demise because they don’t want him to sue, and they had him sign a waiver while he was still half-unconscious–although in fact they blame the incident on his insistence on a general anesthetic for a procedure which most people can handle without even a local), Pincus is dismayed to discover that he now has the ability to see people who have died but been unable to shake off this world because of some unfinished business. These individuals all want him to help them rest in peace by doing various kindnesses for them and their loved ones: him, Pincus, to whom kindness to his fellow man is near-anathema.

Pincus’s primary guide to the world of the unsettled dead is Frank Herlihy (played by Greg Kinnear) who was hit by a bus in the midst of trying to buy a love nest in Greenwich Village for himself and his mistress. Somehow Herlihy must make peace with his widow Gwen (Leoni) before he can shuffle off his mortal coil, and he mistakenly believes that the solution is to prevent her marriage to a kind and altruistic human-rights lawyer, whom Herlihy assumes must be a scoundrel. Pincus is the instrument with which he is determined to make this happen.

Predictably, Pincus falls in love with Gwen and must then try not only to dissuade her from marrying the lawyer but also from nurturing any lingering fond memories of Frank. He must also expand his own capacity for kindness, for Gwen is a kind and loving person. From this premise a great deal of humour can arise, and does—and a lot of the nastily funny dialogue has all the earmarks of having come straight out of Gervais’ wicked mind. But he also plays the part with control and finesse, and before too long we begin to genuinely care for Pincus and to root for his future happiness. He is human, not a caricature – as he could so easily have been – and the credit for that goes to Gervais.

The only two unresolved issues in relation to Ghost Town are 1) why Kinnear gets higher billing than Gervais (perhaps the former’s recent film successes, including Little Miss Sunshine and Fast Food Nation, have made him a stronger box-office attraction at least in North America than Gervais, but the latter is definitely the more compelling actor here, and is on-stage for a much longer time, and has—from everything I have read and heard—a much bigger ego. I’m amazed he didn’t fight to have his name on top) and 2) why the movie didn’t get more attention in the theatres: it was out on DVD within two months of its original release.

As a light comedy this movie totally worked for me and I recommend it. It will make you laugh—and cry, but in a nice way. Take a Kleenex, and enjoy.

Ghost Town is rated PG.

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