Ghost Town

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Ghost Town
Directed by David Koepp

Sometimes there’s nothing more dispiriting than getting exactly what you expect. Anyone who caught trailers for Ghost Town would have glimpsed the often-brilliant British comic Ricky Gervais (The Office, Extras) prancing about in what appeared to be a formulaic American romantic comedy. Barring some slight aberrations, that’s exactly what we get here, and the clash of styles – with Gervais’ trademark impish unpleasantness being made to conform to an oppressively “pleasant” genre – is almost bracing in its sheer capacity to do wrong.

Gervais stars in a US production for the first time as dentist Bertram Pincus, an intensely antisocial individual who avoids human contact at all cost, even brushing aside his troubled-but-attractive neighbor Gwen (eternal mark of mediocrity Téa Leoni). After a botched colonoscopy which kills Pincus for “a lil’ less than seven minutes” (a very funny Kristen Wiig as Pincus’ surgeon), he finds himself hounded by the dead, who (in a direct rip from The Sixth Sense, acknowledged by the film’s tagline) hound him to fix their “unfinished business.” Among them is Gwen’s recently deceased husband Frank (Greg Kinnear, dialing up the smarm), who convinces Pincus to break up Gwen’s impending marriage to a human rights lawyer in order to keep the demanding ghosts at bay.

Based on that description and the film’s denotation as a rom-com, you already know as well as I do where the film goes. Ghost Town annoys more than most of its kind because of the potential at hand – among all the half-baked ideas and predictable plot machinations there’s an occasional moment of inspiration. Nearly all of them come from Gervais, who reprises his awkward schtick to great effect in many scenes (there’s a nod to Office fans in the form of the term “willy-nilly”). The rare scenes in which he gets to interact with Wiig makes one long for a movie in which they’re paired up, rather than imposing a more traditionally palatable vaccuum like Leoni. Kinnear can be great in the right role, and he occasionally taps into his peculiar blend of charm and contemptibility to nice effect, but he’s hamstrung by a character whose choices seem arbitrary and whose ultimate payoff – his “unfinished business” – rings false.

Actually, it’s falsehood that is the movie’s true undoing – Gervais’ characters in his beloved series do have a likable core, but here that aspect of his personality is overplayed, effectively defanging much of the humor. Pincus’ necessary switch from “bad” to “good” is neither smooth nor convincing, and the film’s proffered explanation for Pincus’ beastliness trivializes Gervais’ approach. That, combined with the perfunctory manner in which Gervais and Leoni’s courtship is rolled out, makes enjoying the film more work than it has to be.

Simon Howell

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