Judge Ben Saylor ain't afraid of no ghost...town.
He sees dead people…and they annoy him.
British funnyman Ricky Gervais has carved out a very successful career playing a variety of misanthropes, most notably the incompetent boss David Brent of the BBC series The Office and desperate film extra/T.V. show creator Andy Millman on Extras. Recently, Gervais began dipping his toe into film work, with small roles in movies such as For Your Consideration and Night at the Museum.
With Ghost Town, Gervais is given his first leading role in a feature film. And while the character Gervais plays in the film is little different than the snide, self-centered types he has done so well in the past, the environment into which that character is placed marks uncharted waters for Gervais: the world of romantic comedy.
Facts of the Case
Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), a British dentist living in Manhattan, doesn't want anything to do with other people, preferring instead to mind his own business while expecting other people to do the same.
But when Pincus dies for several minutes during a colonoscopy, he awakes to find that he can now see and hear dead people. Besieged by requests for favors from an ever-growing collection of spirits, Pincus accepts an offer from a tux-clad ghost named Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear, Auto Focus): Frank will get the other ghosts to leave Pincus alone if he will break up the impending re-marriage of Frank's widow Gwen (Téa Leoni, You Kill Me), an Egyptologist who happens to live in the same apartment building as Pincus. But the task of wooing away Gwen from her fiancé Richard (Billy Campbell, The Rocketeer) turns complicated when the rude, cold-hearted Pincus begins to develop feelings of his own for Gwen.
I'm a great admirer of Ricky Gervais' work; I love The Office and Extras, and I even saw Night at the Museum and Stardust largely because I knew he was in both movies. But when I first read about Ghost Town, I must confess to having had no small amount of apprehension about the project. The synopsis (or, more to the point the genre) of the film didn't seem to fit Gervais, and the fact that David Koepp was involved gave me more cause for alarm. While Koepp has admittedly written some strong scripts (Carlito's Way, Jurassic Park), he's got more than his share of clunkers under his belt as well (The Lost World, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Which Koepp was going to show up for Ghost Town?
Thankfully, my fears were largely unfounded, as Ghost Town is a highly enjoyable romantic comedy, even if it doesn't really break any new ground in the genre.
Koepp obviously knows Gervais' strengths as an actor, and he uses them to brilliant comic effect in Ghost Town. Rather than try to re-fashion Gervais' trademark dry, acerbic shtick for mainstream American audiences, Koepp allows Gervais to do what he does best. And while diehard fans of the actor may object to Pincus' gradual softening as his feelings for Gwen grow, Koepp presents the character's progression in a way that is always believable and largely devoid of the gooiness found in many lesser romantic comedies.
In fact, Ghost Town is surprisingly light on the sugar and sap that pervade most romantic comedies. While the third act gets a little corny (the montage of Pincus helping several ghosts), Koepp closes the film with a near-perfect final scene that (mild SPOILER) doesn't feature a camera swooping around the two leads as they passionately kiss, with a horrible pop song playing in the background. (Okay, there's a John Mayer song, but it's not that bad.)
Even when the film does get a little silly and/or predictable, Koepp has an ace up his sleeve: his trio of lead actors. Each gives a terrific performance that goes a long way toward making the film work as well as it does. If you're a Gervais fan, you're likely to enjoy his performance here, which exemplifies solid comic timing whether he's working from Koepp and John Kamps' script or doing some improv. The humor ranges from snappy one-liners to the squirm inducing rambles that Gervais does so well (as when Pincus tries to explain away an outburst that he was directing at Frank while at a dinner party with Gwen and Richard).
As the philandering phantom Frank, Kinnear turns in another strong supporting performance. His character is not very sympathetic, and Kinnear doesn't try to make him so. Still, Koepp is careful not make him a total heel, and Kinnear helps us see Frank's loneliness and also his regret about not being faithful to Gwen. On the other end of the spectrum, Frank's persistent complaining and badgering of Pincus makes for some of the movie's best scenes, and Koepp, clearly cognizant of the chemistry between Kinnear and Gervais, frequently places them in two-shots that allow the viewer to better appreciate the interplay between the two actors.
In a movie like Ghost Town, there is always the danger that the female character is going to be marginalized by the writer and/or director. That is not the case with Gwen Herlihy, who is written as a charming, quirky (but not annoyingly so) woman, and Leoni is more than up to the task of bringing the character to life. In particular, Leoni's reactions to different characters in the film often provoke as much of a laugh as Gervais' more obvious comic antics. One such reaction comes after a lecture her character gives in the film; another comes as she watches Pincus dither over his appointment book, trying to find a free time to examine one of the specimens Gwen is working on. In short, it's a refreshing characterization and portrayal that comes as a breath of fresh air to a genre where the female character is perpetually underwritten.
DreamWorks' DVD of Ghost Town looks and sounds very good; the image is clean and sharp throughout, and the sound conveys music, dialogue and sound effects quite nicely. For extras, the first and best of the lot is a feature commentary with Koepp and Gervais. Because of these two very different personalities, the track manages to be both informative and very entertaining. This is one of the few commentaries I've listened to where I've laughed out loud at something the participants said. Don't buy Gervais' self-deprecating declaration that the track is "drivel"; this is one commentary you'll want to hear.
The rest of the extras—a 22-minute making-of featurette, a 2-minute clip showing the creation of some of the film's effects, and a 6-minute gag reel—are pretty standard fare but still worth watching, although the effects demo doesn't have any narration or dialogue of any kind. A collection of trailers rounds out the disc.
Whether you enjoy Ghost Town will probably depend largely on whether you like Ricky Gervais' brand of humor, but I still highly recommend the movie to anyone who is looking for a slightly better than average romantic comedy. While not one of the more outstanding DVD releases this year, DreamWorks' presentation of the film should make most of the film's fans happy.
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