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Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) is a man whose people skills leave much to be desired. When Pincus dies unexpectedly, but is miraculously revived after seven minutes, he wakes up to discover that he now has the annoying ability to see ghosts. Even worse, they all want something from him, particularly Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), who pesters him into breaking up the impending marriage of his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni).
Ricky Gervais is brilliant in Ghost Town, playing an unnervingly rude dentist, Bertram, who dies for a few minutes during surgery and acquires the unwanted ability to see ghosts. Chased throughout Manhattan by a gaggle of restless spirits begging him to take care of their unfinished business on Earth, Bertram turns them all away except Frank (Greg Kinnear). The latter, a rogue who cheated on his archaeologist widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni), wants Bertram to intervene in a romance between Gwen and a starchy activist (Bill Campbell). Misanthropic Bertram has to polish his relationship patter, but ends up sounding a lot like Gervais' infamous character in the original The Office, unable to complete a sentence without making others uncomfortable. In time, of course, Bertram falls for the wonderful Gwen, setting up a bunch of overlapping conflicts. Cowritten and directed by David Koepp (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), Ghost Town walks a fine line between comic freshness and a story idea with elements that have become overly familiar in movies and on television. Kinnear and Leoni have never been better on screen, but Ghost Town is well worth seeing because no one like Gervais has previously played the hapless hero in a high-concept film such as this one. With Gervais doing his familiar, hilariously discomfiting thing, it really doesn't matter what kind of movie Ghost Town is. Happily, it's a pretty good film in every respect. --Tom Keogh
Stills from Ghost Town (Click for larger image)
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But the specifics are somewhat novel. Gervais' character, Dr Pincus, dies temporarily during a colonoscopy that goes off the rails, and when he is released from the hospital, he discovers that he can see and hear ghosts -- a fact that horrifies him but excites the ghosts, because they have "unresolved issues" that they need somebody who's living to help them with.
The key thing is that this gentle story is told really well. The plot has some delightful symmetries. At first it seems as if the main character has been made a dentist simply so we can see him stuffing things into his patients' mouths to shut them up. But no, the plot turns on his occupation: He is able to make a dental diagnosis after looking at the teeth of an Egyptian mummy that makes it possible for him to get close to the lovely Tea Leoni. We learn the touching back stories of several of the ghosts.
But in the end, this is a comedy and a very good one. My wife and I laughed along with our nineteen-year old daughter from one scene to another. The scene in the hospital where Gervais learns from the doctor and the hospital's lawyer that he was technically dead for seven minutes ("less than seven minutes," the lawyer corrects) is a side-splitting classic, but there are plenty of great scenes. It's not quite a five-star comedy like, oh, several of Bill Murray's greatest hits: What About Bob? or Scrooged, or Groundhog Day, or Rushmore. But it's a totally solid four-star effort.
Two small notes -- one positive, one negative.
The positive has to do with the character of Tea Leoni's new boyfriend/fiancé. We are introduced to him through the eyes of Greg Kinnear, Leoni's recently-dead husband, who is, of course, jealous of his replacement. So we think at first that the new boyfriend is a fraud or a gold-digger or something worse. But he's not. He is instead exactly what he appears to be: a humorless guy, maybe even a bit pompous, but in the end, a good and decent man.
The negative has to do with a single word. We watched Ghost Town again recently after seeing another wonderful indie film, Today's Special, which stars Aasif Mandvi (Ghost Town, Today's Special, The Proposal, The Dictator, Spiderman 2). Mandvi plays a small but important part in Ghost Town as the other dentist that Ricky Gervais shares an office with. Mandvi's gentle humanitarian Hindu dentist is a perfect foil to the people-hating Gervais. And so it's appropriate that it is Mandvi who finally gives Gervais the diagnosis that he desperately needs to hear: that he's a jerk. Unfortunately, the writers nodded here, because the line that Mandvi, if he were real, would have uttered ("You're a jerk") is badly marred by the addition of an f-bomb ("You're an f-ing jerk"). Utterly inappropriate to Mandvi's character and jarring. It's a pathetic commentary on our society that Hollywood writers feel the need to avoid that dreaded PG rating.
But now you've been warned about that -- and it's just about the only false-step in an otherwise very sure-footed story. I recommend it.
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