Ghost Town. The name carries with it connotations of a world of restless streets, dramatically flying dust and fighting cowboys who are, to quote my old SAT Vocab book, “copious.” It might also conjure images of horror, haunted houses and all such ways to cash in on Halloween. Accordingly, this “Ghost Town” takes place in a world where Wall Street is restless, stock brokers are belligerent and fear can be found from the 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is Manhattan.
Set in this world where the ghost of Lehman now levitates, “Ghost Town” tells of the exceptionally entertainingly named Dr. Bertram Pincus — dentist by day, ghost-to-human correspondent by other parts of the day. To give a brief but comprehensive plot summary, Pincus (Ricky Gervais, of the British “Office”) finds, after accidentally dying for a few minutes during colon surgery, that he has the ability to see ghosts walking around Manhattan. This somewhat disturbing side effect leads him to the ghost of an adulterous businessman, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear). Now, since Frank is in the Tantalus-like position of seeing but not really living in the real world, and Dr. Pincus is in the Haley Joel Osment-like position of not enjoying seeing dead people, the two strike up a deal. Frank will convince all ghosts to leave Pincus alone if the cranky dentist poses as another potential male option for Frank’s widowed ancient Egypt-expert wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) and thereby stops her from remarrying.
Of course, one would expect at least some humourous moments in a film starring the man who indirectly created America’s Thursday night love affair with NBC. However, what is really amazing is how the film manages to make its audience laugh in scenes ranging from Gervais arguing with a nurse to the cleaning of an Egyptian mummy to Pincus’ realization that he had died at one point.
One of the film’s most impressive successes is its portrayal of Pincus’ obnoxiousness toward almost any and all other human beings, which is not to downplay the also amazing demonstration of his awkwardness with the leading lady (a courting handicap best exemplified by “flirting” remarks referencing molar decay). In creating what is supposed to be such a repulsive character, the film walks a thin line between realistically portraying his misanthropy and making him into a Uncle Scrooge caricature. Luckily, the filmmakers achieve the former goal through such simple scenes as Pincus yelling “No!” at the poster-pushing, “global warming” propagandist (see the Activities Bazaar for details and sympathy).
The film does not avoid all cliches, though. For “Ghost Town” follows the typical romantic comedy storyline of Jerk Meets Girl, Jerk Loves Girl, Jerk and Girl Have Some Problems, and Girl Changes Jerk, with one of the only exceptions being that the Jerk is played by Ricky Gervais, not Tom Cruise. The film’s greatest fault, though, falls to a heavy-handed attempt at “a heart.” There’s nothing wrong with inserting emotions between comments on mummified body parts, but when the formerly indifferent Pincus stands in Central Park despondently professing unrequited love for Gwen, the film is laying it on too thick.
Who would’ve thought that the scariest part in a movie called “Ghost Town” would be the excessively saccharine image of a dejected dentist?