Ghost Town (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Ghost Town Poster

Ghost Town is one of those romantic comedies that never quite clicks. At times, its humor is effective, provoking chuckles and laughs. At other times, the comedy feels forced and awkward. The romantic element is equally hit-and-miss. The chemistry that emerges between the leads during the film's second half is largely absent from the first 45 minutes. And the premise, rich with promise and pregnant with possibilities, is reduced to a plot device that allows Ghost Town to turn into a low-rent, modern-day version of A Christmas Carol.

The movie's opening scene is a winner, with philanderer Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) having a phone conversation with his wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni), who has just discovered he's having an affair. Frank wraps up the call just as the curtain falls on his time on Earth. Director David Koepp orchestrates his end brilliantly, with a sleight-of-hand that is both funny and surprising. However, instead of making his way to the next life, Frank finds himself stuck in Manhattan as a ghost. He can see and hear everything, but is invisible and unable to do more than observe. Enter Bertram Pincus, D.D.S. (Ricky Gervais), the most unpleasant dentist in the city.

Something unfortunate happens to Bertram during a routine colonoscopy. He has a bad reaction to the anesthesia and "dies." The hospital staff is able to revive him and he's released in good condition, but there's an unfortunate side-effect: Bertram, like a plus-sized, British version of Haley Joel Osment, can see dead people. As soon as they realize they have a connection to the world of the living, the ghosts converge on Bertram. Frank offers him a deal: do one thing for him and Frank will make sure the ghosts leave Bertram alone. Gwen is about to marry someone who Frank believes is after her only because of her money, so the goal is for Bertram to foil the union. Predictably, the rest of the film is about Bertram falling for Gwen and how the dentist's interaction with the dead transforms him into a better person. God bless us, every one.

For the most part, Ricky Gervais is better known in the U.K. than in the United States, but he's not exactly cast against type here. Bertram is a singularly unpleasant individual who makes Scrooge seem sociable. He's a prig, a snob, and an antisocial asshole. Ghost Town's conceit is that he will be redeemed by the time the end credits roll and, the more unpleasant he is to start with, the more positively the audience will react to his transformation. There's some truth to that, but the problem is that the movie is devised to be a romantic comedy, and it's very difficult to warm up to a romance when one half of the couple is so thoroughly unlikeable. It's also impossible to respect a woman who will even begin to fall for a man like that. It's not as if Bertram only shows his good side to Gwen. The first time he sees her, he slams an elevator door in her face. The second time, he steals her cab. In most successful romantic comedies, the audience likes both protagonists even if they don't like each other. It's a risk to present someone like Bertram, who we hope will share Frank's fate, then ask us to do an about-face regarding him half-way through the movie.

Ghost Town's comedy is maddeningly inconsistent. Masterful sequences such as the opening one in which Frank meets his demise are interspersed with episodes that not only don't work on a comedic level, but run on for too long. Consider, for example, an interchange between Bertram and his doctor (played by Kristen Wiig) in which both continuously interrupt each other. Like a bad, unfunny segment of Saturday Night Live, this drags on seemingly without end, becoming increasingly frustrating with every new interruption. Comedy is supposed to be funny, not annoying.

In many cases, the way the ghosts are used (or not used) feels like a wasted opportunity. Ultimately, their purpose is to help Bertram recognize the hollowness of his existence and place him on the path to redemption. His final "revelation" about the nature of their existence is underwhelming. It's as if Koepp's screenplay underwent some kind of sanitizing process that eliminated any potentially controversial or edgy issues. Concepts of spirituality and God aren't addressed on any level, which seems an odd omission when one considers the movie is about death, the afterlife, and salvation. The movie doesn't have to preach, but the omission of such matters feels odd.

Those who take a glass half-full approach to Ghost Town will probably enjoy it the most. There is romance, there is comedy, and there is a feel-good ending. For some, those things will be enough, and the fact that they're not as well developed or effectively nurtured as they might be will not be a significant detraction. Ultimately, however, the movie cries out for an offbeat approach such as the one Marc Forster utilized in Stranger than Fiction. Ghost Town's unwillingness to escape from a safe orbit keeps the movie trapped in mediocrity.

Ghost Town (United States, 2008)

Director: David Koepp
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Téa Leoni, Bill Campbell, Kristen Wiig
Screenplay: David Koepp & John Kamps
Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Music: Geoff Zanelli
U.S. Distributor: Dreamworks
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2008-09-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1