Ghost Town (DreamWorks), a romantic comedy about a haunted dentist in New York City, doesn’t do justice to the manifold gifts of Ricky Gervais, the co-creator and star of the BBC series The Office and HBO’s Extras. Then again, giving Gervais the American star vehicle he deserves might be too much to ask. When he’s performing his own material according to his own rules, Gervais is capable of comic sublimity. (I’m one of those Office purists who still refuses to watch the American version; why remake perfection?) He’s less at ease in the lab-rat maze of a formulaic romance. Still, Ghost Town has inspired casting, a few memorable scenes, and enough laughs that mainstream U.S. audiences may finally get the point of that doughy English guy with the pointy canine teeth and the high-pitched giggle.
The story meeting for this movie must have run long. It’s The Sixth Sense played for laughs! It’s A Christmas Carol if Scrooge were a dentist! There’s hardly a ghost-themed movie of the last century that doesn’t contribute at least something to the mix. But most of all, Ghost Town recalls the 1937 film Topper, in which Cary Grant and Constance Bennett played two debonair ghouls about town who return from the beyond to show the stuffy title character how to live a little.
Ghost Town’s chief revenant, like Topper’s, is a tuxedoed cad who regards being dead as a blasted inconvenience. Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) happens to get run over by a bus on the same day that his wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni), discovers he’s been cheating on her. Wandering the streets of New York, Frank realizes he’s invisible to the living but surrounded by other unquiet souls with scores to settle. Meanwhile, Bertram Pincus (Gervais), a deeply misanthropic and perpetually angry dentist, is preparing to undergo a routine colonoscopy. After he briefly dies on the operating table (a fact withheld from him by his passive-aggressive doctor, a hilarious Kristen Wiig), Bertram wakes up with a paranormal gift. He sees dead people, and he finds them really irritating.
The stretch of the movie that follows, in which Frank convinces Bertram to prevent Gwen’s upcoming wedding to a stodgy human rights lawyer (Billy Campbell), is an uphill climb. It’s never clear why Frank, a fairly unpleasant fellow, is able to press his case more convincingly than all the other ghosts who besiege Bertram with their requests. And Gervais’ character in the early scenes is so silent and dour that the actor has no chance to exercise the foot-in-mouth logorrhea that is his specialty.
But once Leoni’s Gwen comes on the scene, the movie starts to bubble along nicely. Not just because Leoni is a screwball heroine worth, er, screwballing—at 42, she’s more attractive than ever—but because her character is given a weight and texture that’s rare in a movie of this type. Gwen is an up-and-coming Egyptologist who’s curating a big show at the Met while quietly pining for her dead, unfaithful husband. She admires her lantern-jawed, do-gooding boyfriend but can’t bring herself to laugh at his jokes. The scenes between Leoni and Gervais—most notably one in which they examine a mummy together—lift the occasionally pedestrian script to another level. It’s a sad comment on the state of romantic comedy when you find yourself thinking: Wow, in this one I can actually see why the two leads like each other!
Every ghost story is really a story about mourning, which is why the genre will never die. David Koepp, directing from his own script, is best known as a screenwriter of blockbusters (Spider-Man and the last Indiana Jones movie), but he also made the delicately spooky 1999 thriller Stir of Echoes, which touched upon some of the same themes as Ghost Town: What do the living owe the dead, and how can those stuck on both sides of the divide learn to let go? Ghost Town doesn’t rank among the great ghost-themed movies; it’s no Ugetsu or Truly, Madly, Deeply. The metaphysical questions it does raise get resolved too quickly and neatly, even for a comedy. But the last two lines of dialogue may be the best kicker I’ve heard in a movie this year. They leave us convinced that Téa Leoni, catch that she is, could go weak in the knees for the likes of Ricky Gervais. If they’re smart, American audiences will, too.