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This Week in Film: Ghost Town

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

A generous performance by Ricky Gervais lets both him and Greg Kinnear shine.

ImageGhost Town is a real departure for its director David Koepp, who usually writes action/adventure films such as Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park for Steven Spielberg and directs thrillers like The Trigger Effect and Stir of Echoes. In Echoes Kevin Bacon plays a man who sees a dead girl, in Ghost Town Ricky Gervais also sees dead people as well but this time it’s played for comic effect. I know we’ve seen so many films where visions of the dead are used for both horror and humor but Ghost Town is an example of how any formula can be reinvented with solid writing and performances.

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Gervais is the British character actor/comedian who is the star of the cable series, Extras. In Ghost Town he plays a Manhattan dentist named Bertram Pincus, a man who really hates his life and most others as well. He’s the kind of guy who hits the “close door” button when a neighbor asks him to hold the elevator. After undergoing a routine procedure at a local hospital he begins to see dead folks on the streets. It turns out that unbeknownst to him he actually died for several minutes during the procedure and now has this “gift.” Greg Kinnear is the recently deceased Frank Herlihy, and he has some unfinished business with his ex wife Gwen (Tea Leoni). He doesn’t like the guy she’s dating and he asks Pincus to help him break up the romance.

Frank isn’t the only one who needs help however as just about every dead person wants Pincus to help them with something unfinished, and Frank promises that if he helps him he’ll ensure that all of the dead folks will leave him alone. At first Pincus is reluctant but when he realizes that Gwen is the same woman that lives in his building and that he kind of finds her attractive, he decides to go along with the plan.

At this point you may think that you know exactly where Ghost Town is heading, that there will be some broad physical comedy where Pincus does silly things to try and turn Gwen against her new beau or that Pincus will fall head over heals for Gwen but she won’t realize that he’s the right one for her. Yes, there is much humor in Ghost Town but it’s anything but slapstick, in fact it’s surprisingly low key and understated. This matches perfectly with Gervais’ style which relies on body language and believe it or not words. Watch the way he talks to the doctor when she tries to hide the details of his procedure, as she double talks, he tries to make sense of what she’s saying only to end up making things even more incomprehensible, it’s verbal comedy at its best. The same goes for when he tries to cover up for saying something weird, or awkward but ends up digging himself into a deeper hole. Gervais is that rare comedic actor who knows how to turn what could have played as heavy handed and silly into subtle and eccentric, that a small gesture often works better than a double take.

As Pincus gets to know Gwen he does indeed take a liking to her but he also doesn’t see why Frank sees her new boyfriend as a bad guy, especially since he’s basically a good looking masculine version of Mother Teresa. What Frank can’t figure out is why he’s really still on this side. That question is eventually answered and Pincus also begins to see that being a jerk really isn’t getting him anywhere in life. This doesn’t happen in a trite Regarding Henry kind of way, but in a way that a modern day Frank Capra would have been proud of. Gervais “awakening” if you will doesn’t seem forced because he’s so good at showing us that Pincus really wants to be less selfish but that he really just needs a good reason and maybe some help along the way.

Ghost Town is Gervais’ film and Kinnear knows this, he’s such a generous actor that he allows every scene to center around Gervais when he could have stolen them with his star power. What really makes Gervais performance stand out is the fact that he doesn’t find the need to make the audience love every aspect of his character; he’s a real person with many faults so when we finally get to see his “better” side it’s just an extension of who he is rather than a movie contrivance. Ghost Town is a real gem, the kind of film that sneaks up on you but it’s Gervais performance that’s the true revelation.