It takes a good while for Ricky Gervais to warm up in Ghost Town; it takes even longer for the audience to warm to Ricky Gervais. During the opening minutes of Ghost Town — an occasionally effective mash-up of Ghost, The Sixth Sense, and The Frighteners — Gervais, as Bertram Pincus, D.D.S., is nearly mute as a dentist who enjoys his work because it allows him the peace and quiet that comes with sticking cotton balls and plaster molds into his patients' mouths, thus rendering them the right side of shut-up. To his doorman, he nods and grunts; to his colleagues, he offers only disinterested stares. He can't even fake congratulations when his partner, Dr. Prashar (played by The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi), toasts the birth of his first child. Pincus is a "sad little man," one observer says, but to Prashar, he's simply "a fucking prick."
Gervais, of course, excels at playing sad little men: He accrued his deserved icon status in England, and later the U.S., as bossman David Brent on the original The Office. Brent believed himself a bringer of joy amidst the soul-darkening fluorescent lights of cubicle life, a dispenser of wisdom to the workaday slouches in Slough, a genius among dolts. He was the exact opposite. In the follow-up, Extras, Gervais played an even sadder little man: a movie-set nobody accorded somebody status with his own TV show, which he loathed only slightly more than he loathed the people who watched it.
Gervais' gift lies in his finding the middle ground between loathsome and affable — pitiable, maybe? Merriam-Webster, what say you? Pitiable: "of a kind to evoke mingled pity and contempt especially because of inadequacy." Ding, ding, and ding. Sure, he's a fucking prick, but, gosh, maybe he just needs a hug.
Hence Bertram Pincus, D.D.S., the incomplete man who, after a brief period of death on an operating table during a colonoscopy, sees dead people. Hates it at first, of course — being a sort of Pied Piper for the deceased. Such an inconvenience for a man who likes his privacy — only, since "New York is lousy with ghosts" (says a ghost), and since Bertram is the only one in Manhattan who can see them, this makes him a very popular man indeed. Because these ghosts have issues they need help with, and only the living can do them a solid.
Take Greg Kinnear's tuxedoed Frank, offed while shouting down the realtor who revealed his affair. He latches onto Bertram in the desperate hope that the dentist can bust up his widow's remarriage to a humorless, self-righteous, and quite hunky human-rights attorney (Billy Campbell). Coincidentally, Frank's wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni), lives in Bertram's apartment building, and Bertram has — but of course — already revealed himself a rather discourteous neighbor prone to stealing Gwen's cabs during downpours. So it's through his relationship with a dead man that Bertram enters the world of the living.
And if it sounds all so pale and predictable, it is. Director and co-writer David Koepp, more or less remaking his 1999 film Stir of Echoes with a romantic-comedy's dopey grin this time, does little to break with the genre's conventions, as Bertram and Gwen, a paleontologist already enamored of mummified corpses, begin their unlikely courtship. Koepp, who has directed some half-dozen films and written dozens more, is wont to tinker with yellowed formulas — Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, which he wrote, provided a sluggish revisit with an aging hero — without improving upon or advancing them. His movies seldom surprise, provoke, or demand. They just ... are.
But Ghost Town, dead on arrival throughout much of its first half, picks up as it slows down — when it ditches the decidedly dreary romantic slapshtick of the living and focuses, however briefly, on the needy, aching dead. Theirs are simple requests, but genuinely heartbreaking ones involving things unsaid and deeds undone. The film ponders, however briefly, the ghosts' what-ifs and why-nots and how-comes, and Koepp manages to maintain his balance between the sappy and the overwrought; he's better at heartache than heartbreak. Alan Ruck and Dana Ivey play two of the ghosts haunted by their small but significant perceived failures as parents; they're doomed to wander New York till they can put a relieved smile on their kids' faces one last time. And it's Bertram's involvement in their lives, not in Gwen's, that makes him worth our time. Because for much of the movie he's a stunted misanthrope, one more irritaining Ricky Gervais character in need of the necessary comeuppance that will lead to his inevitable redemption. But when Gervais tones down and softens up, when he's stripped of the dark wit and shorn of the cold snark, he's actually quite the terrific actor — quite ordinary, perfectly lovely, and never more alive.
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