During the week before Ghost Town's release I read that co-writer/director Daivd Koepp regretted casting British comedian Ricky Gervais as his lead. Why would he say such a thing? It apparently had nothing to do with Gervais personally or with his performance. Rather it had to do with Gervais not being terribly well known to American audiences, which could possibly translate to audiences choosing a movie with a better known star.
It was a statement I took at face value, not that it had any effect on my interest in the film since I'm familiar with Gervais's work and was interested in the story's concept. Now, after the fact, I do a quick search and find that, as happens so many times, the quote was interpreted incorrectly; there was no regret involved. Mr. Koepp responded to the misquote, saying: "…Ricky Gervais is the single greatest thing about our film…" Now there is something I can agree with.
The story blends the supernatural with comedy and romance. It is not a perfect mix, but it is one that works because it is a little different, a little off-kilter. Why is it different? I would have to say it is a combination of the screenplay, by Koepp and John Kamps (the two previously collaborated on Zathura), and the performance of one Ricky Gervais. Could it have been better? Probably. Few films are perfect. This is one satisfying movie. It's very accessible, but it still feels different, and again it goes back to the script and Gervais.
As the story opens, we meet Frank (Greg Kinnear). He is walking down the street in a tuxedo and is on the phone with his wife. It appears that the man has just been caught cheating. Well, he meets a quick and unexpected end in a sequence that actually caught me off guard. Rather than passing on to whatever the afterlife happens to be, he finds himself stuck in Manhattan as a ghost. Enter Bertram Pincus, DDS (Ricky Gervais), an antisocial jackass who seems to revel in his unreasonable behavior.
Well, our unlikable tooth driller goes to the hospital for a routine colonoscopy. During the procedure he "dies" from a reaction to the anesthetic, but the crack medical team is able to bring him back. In the process of being revived, Pincus did not come back alone, as happens in many horror films. He now has the ability to see dead people. This is something that he does not welcome, initially believing the visions to be hallucinations. Of course they aren't, and this makes our unlikable fellow very popular among the dead.
After a few interactions with the dead, who apparently cause sneezes, we settle down with Bertram and Frank. Frank has a problem. Now that he has passed on, his wife, Gwen (Tea Leoni), is moving on. The problem is that she is moving on with a new guy, of whom he does not approve. So, Frank enlists the only living man who can see him to break up the coupling.
Following the Sixth Sense-like setup, we move into the more traditional romantic comedy stage as we follow Bertram's attempts to chat up Gwen. It doesn't help that their first interactions have Bertram closing an elevator on her and stealing her cab. I know those moves always work for me. The story beats go through the awkward meeting, the slow build of romance, the colossal screw-up, and ultimate reunion. There is nothing special there.
The screenplay is a snappy piece of work with some very nice dialogue that moves along at a brisk pace making the familiar elements feel new. Combine that nice writing with Ricky Gervais and you cannot help but have a winner. Gervais is not playing it straight up for laughs, he genuinely brings an unlikability to Bertram in those early scenes. Yes, it is easy to laugh at, but if this was a real person there is no way you would want to associate with him, much less enter into a romance. Still, the way Ricky Gervais approaches the character is just fantastic and really sets the tone for the whole movie. He single-handedly put Ghost Town on his back and carried it. Very good work.
On the other side of the coin, I think it would have been nice to have some more ghostly interactions. They all seem to back off rather easily, content to become far background players. I also think the quirk factor could have been turned up a few more notches. Still, I liked this movie.
Bottom line. This is a movie that is well worth spending some time with. There is some good dialogue, a strong lead performance. Will this be Ricky Gervais' breakthrough in the States? Perhaps. Even if it isn't, he is a funny guy and he brings a great flavor to the film.