Ricky Gervais has become a major international star. The British comic created and was the lead actor in the original British TV version of The Office (2006) and Extras (2007). He has won two Emmys and a Golden Globe. Now after a few bit parts his distinctive persona has made it in full dyspepsia to movie screens.
In a sense, Gervais is Everyman. His cheeky vulnerability is a staple of his persona. His characters have a cranky sense of superiority, but their egos lead them into inevitable failures and blunders. Their egos crash on the mean pavements of everyday life. But a characteristic that separates the persona of Gervais from most contemporary comic actors is his intelligence. His characters have intelligence, and they know it, which makes their faux pas even more embarrassing.
In Ghost Town his character says, “I like Sting, because you can hear he's intelligent in his lyrics.” His persona has a vocabulary that would baffle a President. He's a cynic, and since a cynic is a failed idealist, you know he's failed. A lot.
In a memorable episode of Extras, in a club David Bowie makes up a song mocking Gervais' character Andy Millman in a classic putdown. You laugh as you cringe as Millman is annihilated. That is the nature of Gervais' persona.
Ghost Town is a lark of a movie with a very likable cast and a smart script. It's the story of Bertram Pincus (Gervais), a dentist living in Manhattan who holds everybody in disdain. When Pincus undergoes a minor procedure at a hospital, a problem with the anesthetic causes him to die for about six minutes. After leaving the hospital, oblivious to what has happened to him, he begins to see people that no one else does. They're dead.
Pincus returns to the hospital to get help for his “hallucinations,” and eventually realizes the anesthesia mishap. He is followed by a mob of the dead, which approaches the size of a Verizon mob, who have unfinished business on earth and need his help. He rebuffs them, but one ghost, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) says if Pincus helps him, he will make the mob go away.
Frank is zealously committed to breaking up a developing relationship between his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) and her new boyfriend, whom he can't stand. His wife is an Egyptologist, and Pincus is able to help her in her vocation. He and Gwen embark on a fitful, therapeutic friendship.
Like many of the best ghost fables, Ghost Town is both clever and sentimental. The tradition of ghost movies is a rich one: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Ghost (1990), and The Sixth Sense (1999).
Even though it's not about possession as the following are, the tone of Ghost Town is more reminiscent of Steve Martin's All of Me (1984), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) which was remade by Warren Beatty into Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Switch (1991) with Ellen Barkin's great performance.
The cast of Ghost Town is talented and appealing. Kinnear, as always, is very human, even as a ghost. The undervalued Leoni adds spunk to her character of the confused widow. But basically Ghost Town is Gervais' movie. As Pincus, Gervais frowns peevishly, smiles nervously, and sighs wearily, the only thing barely alive in a universe of boredom.
As always, Gervais is a vessel of broken intelligence. He also does some masterly physical bits. His sequence of gagging as a huge dog stands by his chair is a comic gem.
Unfortunately the ending of Ghost Town seems as though it may have been changed after sneak previews. A central character (with flowers) disappears suddenly as though he were cut in a spur of the moment decision.
Ghost Town is co-written and directed by David Koepp. Until the conclusion, Koepp keeps matters going through snappy paces. But the ending that's left seems truncated. It's not bad, but it lacks smoothness and coherence, as though it may be an after thought. A Ricky Gervais' character wouldn't expect anything else.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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