Ricky Gervais may be a slightly less attractive option in comparison to Jennifer Love Hewitt, but he’s every bit the Ghost Whisperer she is in 2008’s rom-com Ghost Town. Sure, elements of the film aren’t all that stunning and there’s nothing particularly earth-shaking about this David Koepp project, but it does mark Gervais’ first opportunity to lead a picture and it is uplifting and amusing.
Gervais stars as Bertram Pincus and he’s a dentist, which pretty much means he’s a horrific human being with nothing good to contribute to society. It turns out that beyond his masochistic vocation, he actually is quite a jerk. Pincus doesn’t much care for people and tends to avoid most social interactions with co-workers, patients, and the general public. Part of the reason Pincus loves dentistry is that he can solve the crisis of an over-talkative patient with a simple load of dentistry products.
One day, Pincus goes to the hospital for a routine surgery – a colonoscopy, in fact – and he actually dies on the operating table for about seven minutes. As any rational person worth his or her salt would conclude, the whole experience leads Pincus to see dead people. The ghosts begin to dog him because they realize that poor Pincus can help them “cross over” and Melinda Gordon’s on a break. One of the ghosts, Frank (Greg Kinnear) is particularly determined. He wants Bertram to break up the looming marriage of his widow (Téa Leoni) to some jackass lawyer (Billy Campbell).
The plot spirals down all of the usual avenues one might expect it to take, with all sorts of romantic elements and Pincus undergoing quite a personality change throughout the course of the picture. But here’s the thing: it works. Koepp, whose normal kingdom of filmmaking is more along the lines of writing Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park, lends his pen and eye to Ghost Town’s barefaced romantic-comedy and essentially pulls off the shift. He creates a film that is modest, low on effects, and high on the human element. And he knows how to work with his performers to offer them plenty of time to run with the humour.
Gervais is hilarious as Pincus. He’s able to represent each direction his character goes with natural magnetism, playing both the jerk and the “nice guy” with good humour. Gervais also works well with the other performers, generating great chemistry with the always enjoyable Kinnear and actually working out a believable romantic angle with Leoni. The bit players also give the English comic a bit of help, with SNL’s Kristen Wiig as a surgeon and The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi as one of Pincus’ co-workers.
There is a sentimentality to Ghost Town that sometimes crosses the line into cheeseball terrain. For the most part, though, the dramatic moments work and we believe Pincus’ conversion into a nicer version of himself because of his experiences. It is, in many ways, very sensible to infer that being surrounded by a gaggle of ghosts might have changed Pincus into someone who cares slightly more about others than he did when we first met the self-absorbed ass.
So while it’s not perfect, Ghost Town does make for an appealing and often hilarious hour-and-a-half. Ricky Gervais proves that he is fit for a leading role and the supporting cast gives him more than enough to work with. The story is straightforward, harmless, sometimes tacky, but almost always enjoyable. Koepp’s light-handed approach to the project helps, too, giving these ghosts an spacious quality that other directors may have spoiled.
If it hurts when you smile, Ghost Town might be able to fix that for you.