Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) is a misanthropic Brit in New York, a dentist who is never happier than when stuffing his patients' mouths with cotton wool so he doesn’t have to listen to them babble. People, he hates ’em. But when Pincus has a routine operation and his heart temporarily stops, he’s suddenly surrounded by people. Dead ones. And they all want to talk to him.
Frank (Greg Kinnear) is not having a great time either. First his wife Gwen (Téa Leoni) finds out about the apartment he just bought for his mistress, then he narrowly avoids getting hit by an air conditioner only to get squished by a bus; now he’s dead, stranded in New York, and worried about his wife’s new boyfriend. There’s only one guy who can help him…
Co-written and directed by David Koepp (Secret Window) Ghost Town is Gervais’s first lead role after a series of cameos and all eyes will be on the Office star to see if he can pull off the leap from small to big screen.
If anything, though, the contrast between TV and film works in his favour. There’s something inherently comedic about seeing Gervais's comely face and deliberately awkward style in this slick American setting. He’s funny-looking and curmudgeonly and doesn’t quite fit and this, in itself, proves an effective comedy tool.
This is particularly true of the first part of the film, where, always good at exasperation, Gervais cranks it up a gear to depict the socially-stunted dentist who is trying to avoid human interaction in a frustrating world.
It’s only when Pincus gets involved in helping Frank, and begins to fall for Gwen, that his character becomes less convincing. As soon as he has to get the girl, Gervais slips into David Brent mode, or, rather, Ricky Gervais mode; peculiar, gauche but ultimately likeable. I buy Pincus seeing dead people, I even buy Gwen falling for Pincus, but I don’t quite accept Gervais’s speedy transition from grumpy asshole to amusing-if-eccentric good guy. Of course he’s hilarious when he riffs in that brilliant way he has, but it would have been more gratifying to see the actor mine the misery a little more, and then turn his character more gradually into an unlikely romantic. Or start off less wretched. Either one, just so that the transition didn’t feel so clunky.
That aside, this is still an extremely funny and loveable film. Setting up Gwen as an intelligent and slightly goofy Egyptologist means there’s just about enough believable chemistry between the two and Leoni’s reactions to Pincus’s dry sense of humour are winningly realistic. There’s also a great antagonistic buddy relationship between Pincus and Frank, their very different appearances and characters making them an unlikely and thus effective duo.
The plot, style and appearance of the film are slick but simple, reminiscent of family friendly films of the 1980s but with offbeat elements – such as the spray tan-obsessed doctor played hilariously by Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig – which means it meets the expectations of a 2008 rom com audience spoilt by the films of Judd Apatow.
The supernatural elements are simply done, too, but with some nice details, like people sneezing when they walk through a ghost. And while there is inevitably a morality tale at the core of Ghost Town it comes over more as a universal story than a predictable cliché. The film also has a great soundtrack, thankfully eschewing that Specials song for the unexpected Beatles track 'I’m Looking Through You' amongst other strikingly good tunes.
If Ghost Town brings to mind Ghost and As Good As It Gets, it manages to carve out its own identity amongst these films, though this is due more to Gervais’s talent than to any great strength of storyline.
There’s something wonderful about seeing the comedian on the big screen in a role like this. Even if he is just playing a version of himself, he still manages to carry Ghost Town in a way that, say, Russell Brand (who is guilty of the same trick) would be unlikely to manage. A light, smart and very funny romantic comedy, this film shows that Gervais’s talent, which we might have thought was subtle and very British and possibly a bit niche, is actually very large indeed. Sniff. Rather makes you proud.
Ghost Town (12A) is on general release.