“Ghost Town” – A Haunting Comedy – 3 popcorns

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by Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

The effervescent reincarnation of a romantic comedy sub-genre that’s been haunting silver screens ever since “Topper” (1937), David Koepp’s “Ghost Town” does its spectral predecessors proud. You know the deal. A cynic can suddenly see ghosts. He’d rather not. Making it worse, concomitant with said power he’s assigned a soul-saving mission. 

Handling the drill this time, literally and figuratively, is Bertram Pincus, D.D.S., portrayed with perfectly defining lack of joie de vie by Ricky Gervais. The sourpuss, who quizzically left his native London for New York because “it was too crowded there,” is entirely bereft of people skills. Oh, that he could stuff cotton wads in the world’s mouth.

Acquiring his apparitional sense following seven minutes of momentary death during a routine colonoscopy, now the loner has to suffer not only the intrusions of the quick, but the dead as well. Leading the charge of this new contingent hell-bent on precluding his much sought isolation is Greg Kinnear’s Frank Herlihy, former pitchman personified.

Happily for the plot, unhappily for Dr. Pincus, dead Frank hasn’t lost his stuff. Impelled to make one big last sale, the unwelcome vision in a tuxedo (you wear what you died in) explains that, while a philanderer, he nevertheless loved his wife, Gwen (Tea Leoni). And well, he just doesn’t like this guy to whom she’s engaged. He pleads mortal intervention.

Fat chance, says the doc, repeatedly, in hallways, anterooms, elevators and streets, inevitably also heard by those living folk who just so happen to be in attendance. Though in on the signature cliché, we still can’t help but laugh when these abashed observers puzzle over the solitary, round-faced fellow screaming, “Just shut up and get out of here.” 

OK then, retorts Kinnear’s niftily etched lead phantasm. To make his case, he’ll show Bertram what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a full-court haunting. He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Still, while beleaguering, it’s to no avail. And then it happens. Serendipitously, intercession seemingly arrives of its own power. Bertram meets Gwen.

It’s at a lecture the archeologist is giving as prelude to a mummy exhibit she’s mounting at the museum. She is bright, intelligent and winsome. And while there’s no sense in trying to conceal where that will take the storyline, here’s the rub. She’s the gal in his apartment building he’s closed elevator doors on and from whom he’s stolen cabs.

Trying to ameliorate that past rudeness, the D.D.S. is also still inundated with requests from a host of other ghosts, all beseeching him to right or correct a situation that keeps them in their Manhattan purgatory. However, while engaged in a plan that just might free Frank from his limbo, he’s hardly a ghost-itarian. The others can go to, well, you know. 

Granted, whether it’s helping angels get their wings or levering lost souls from the afterlife’s halfway house, this is all familiar shtick. But that’s OK, so long as each filmic visitation possesses its own consistency and novelty. Let’s face it. There’s an inherent fantasy here. Walking around N.Y.C. as a specter sure beats the big white light.

Hosting this latest cinema haunting, Kinnear puts on the charm like nobody’s business. He is a swell antithesis to Mr. Gervais’s selfish curmudgeon, their mutual incompleteness apt glue for the friendship of convenience that evolves. Gadding about town, chiding each other’s shortcomings, the one-liners zing, the running gags keep the levity aloft.

Unfortunately, despite its otherworldly pontifications, the albeit solid scenario can’t shake its Earthly bounds. Which means a traditional denouement, when she mistakes this, and he fails to comprehend that, and it sure doesn’t look like things are going to work out in the end, for anyone. It serves to remind that neither life nor death is all fun and games.

Once this clearinghouse of seriousness has passed, the frivolity tries to kick in again, replete with a somewhat surprising if not completely convincing twist. Bear in mind, beyond the afterlife thing, we’re also supposed to buy an unlikely coeur de affaire not exactly made in Heaven. 

All of which points to the fine suspension of disbelief Ricky Gervais’s character inspires. It is a multifold performance, chiseled with both humor and brine. Somewhere in that cold shell we suspect, or at least want to think, despite the Brit’s disassociating behavior and consistently deadpan renouncing of humanity, a good person resides. 

Tea Leoni as the widow lends a bit of emotional prestidigitation herself. Vulnerable without forsaking movie star appeal, she gives the improbable romance just the smidgen of credibility it needs. Alas, blame it on human imperfection that there’s no big nuance to turn things totally ethereal. Otherwise, “Ghost Town” makes for spirited moviegoing.

“Ghost Town,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by David Koepp and stars Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni. Running time: 102 minutes

 


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