The story of real people interacting with ghosts is a movie-making staple, from Ghost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan to Heaven Can Wait to Truly, Madly, Deeply to, most powerfully, It's a Wonderful Life. Since movies allow us, the viewer, to assume point of view of the main character, we get to see the ghosts too, often when nobody else on screen does. When done right, it's a uniquely sweet, yet powerful kind of fantasy that the movies do very, very well. Ghost Town, the new movie written and directed by David Koepp, joins this company in fine style.
Besides a nut-tight script, the reason this movie moves so is a surprisingly powerful and original star turn by Ricky Gervais, the slightly rotund, steely-eyed, unfortunately coifed creator and star of such breathtaking British sitcoms as The Office and Extras. It's safe to say that Gervais presents the most odious, curmudgeonly, misanthropic leading man since Alastair Sim in the original screen version of A Christmas Carol, not coincidentally the granddaddy of all real people-and-ghost stories. Sim was snarling, slithery, and mean , but with a silver lining. Gervais is rude, impudent, and also snarling, and he too has a silver lining.
One has to scratch one's head to think of a good ole American actor who could pull off a jerk like this. I guess Brits just have the a-hole with a heart of gold thing covered. At any rate, whereas Scrooge parades his misanthropy like a battle flag, barky, snarky little Gervais, playing an odious Manhattan dentist named Dr. Pincus, shows his distaste for life as we know it by being met at his steely cell of a luxury apartment with a neatly folded copy of the New York Times crossword with three perfectly sharpened pencils. It so happens that Dr. Pincus has to visit the hospital, for a routine procedure. But once he hits the gurney, our hero clucks like a lily-livered chicken. Seems he can dish out the pain, but he can't take it -- what we've got here is a dentist with an abscess of spirit/soul. His pre-op jitters precipitate total anesthesia and a near-death experience, which sets the hijinks a-rolling.
At this point, mention must be made of Greg Kinnear, one of the real gems working in the movies today. He just leaps off the screen and infects you -- he has the low-key assurance of Frank Sinatra (as singer not actor.) Kinnear is a cool cucumber, and a perfect foil for pasty Gervais. Crisp in a tux, Kinnear opens the film with a solo that rockets the whole thing off perfectly. (The greatest Blackberry scene in motion pictures? I wondered if it was an iPhone, but that would have been reaching, Kinnear's character is a pure Blackberry guy.)
And then, rounding out the triumvirate is Tea Leoni, a truly pained, honest portrayal. Her comedy comes from her reality; she reminded me of a Barbara Stanwyck type, sexy and smart and honest. Maybe a bit of Jean Arthur. The comparisons to the glorious old Hollywood pictures are not accidental.
Ghost Town is the kind of tightly written, focused, and quite frankly emotional love story that Hollywood used to own. It's like a flashback fifty years (maybe sixty? Seventy?). You know how those movies felt so real and immediate? The side comic scenes are really asides, and poke satirical fun at health care, race relations. Satire? Remember that?
But in the end, Ghost Town is a love story, and although at times the seams show (thankfully the producers and creators brought this baby in at 93 minutes!), it succeeds in not only putting across one of the most unlikely leading men in movies (watch out Clooney, here comes Gervais!!!), it makes you believe, and think. Ah -- character, story, wit. Who ever thought those would work in a movie? - Ken Krimstein
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, professor, cartoonist, father, and grump who now lives in Chicago. So there.