This misleadingly titled tale of a dentist who sees dead people attempts to be a supernatural romantic-comedy in the manner of the old TOPPER movies from the ’30s. For most of its length, GHOST TOWN succeeds adequately but not exceptionally, offering up mild-mannered laughs and playing the heartstrings like a string quartet in a vast orchestral hall – you know you’re supposed to be moved, but it’s hard to respond to the music when the volume has you reaching for your hearing aid. Fortunately, the film builds to a crescendo that eventually achieves the desired effect, teasing tears out of viewers like a competent musician gifted with a sudden flash of inspiration.
After a brief prologue in which the adulterous Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) is run over by a bus, the narrative focuses on Bertram Pincus, D.D.S. (Ricky Gervais), an anti-social dentist who makes it a special point to avoid human contact as much as possible. After an operation on his bowels (during which, he later learns, he died for approximately seven minutes), he discovers that the ghosts of the dead are wandering the streets of New York. (I guess that makes New York a “ghost town”; at least, that’s as close as the film comes to justifying the title.) Grateful to find a live human who can see them, the ghosts are eager to use him as a medium to deliver messages to their loved ones, but Bertram is not interested in helping. More persistent and clever, Frank manages to talk Bertram into breaking up a marriage between his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) and her new fiance. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that the process will lead Bertram to abandon his misanthropy and fall in love with Gwen…
GHOST TOWN’s best joke is that, after keeping his fellow human figuratively locked outside all his life, Bertram finds himself haunted by ghosts who can walk through whatever literal walls he puts between himself and them. Gervais may not be a conventional Hollywood star, but he plays Pincus beautifully – although you know he’s a jerk, you identify with the protective layer with which he surrounds himself, which often takes the form of extreme sarcasm.
Leoni also comes off well. She has always been a bit of a bland blond beauty, but the passing years have added some character to her face. Without going overly melodramatic, she exudes the wear and tear of a woman suffering from grief over not only the death of her husband but also her unresolved emotions regarding his philandering.
Kinnear fares not quite so well. He is an enjoyable presence as always, but he is stuck in a bit of a second-banana role that offers little chance to shine. Special notice goes to Aasif Mandvi in a small role as Pincus’ associate, who gets delivers the movies best line (“Some day you will have to ask yourself the ultimate question: This business of being a f-cking prick – what is it doing for me?”).
The film’s biggest weakness is that it often just seems…well, weak. Not hitting bad notes, exactly, but hitting the right notes too softly, so that they do not register the intended emotional impact, whether for laughter or tears. For example, the scene in which Pincus drags the truth from his reluctant doctor regarding what happened on the operating table is obviously intended as a moment of viruoso hilarity, but it evokes at most a few giggles.
Perhaps the problem is that David Koepp, a writer-turned-director who previously helmed the effective A STIR OF ECHOES, has not quite mastered his second craft yet. He has written numerous blockbusters (WAR OF THE WORLDS, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, etc), but he has yet to deliver a verifiable hit as a director. His work is competent but at times it seems as if he does not quite know how to bring the script to life. The coverage of some scenes suggests he simply shot things from three or four different angles and tried to splice it together in the editing room. This simple technique can work when the script and the cast are all in perfect harmony, but there are times in GHOST TOWN when a little more effort from the conductor might have lifted the material from pleasant to joyful.
But it’s only fair to remember that there’s nothing wrong with pleasant. GHOST TOWN is enjoyable from start to finish, and it does get better as it goes along. It even wrings an interest twist on our conception of ghosts haunting the Earth because they have unfinished business. If at times it seems a bit like a little TV movie that escaped onto the big screen – or, shall we say, a minuet masquerading as a symphony? – size isn’t everything. Sometimes being good is just as important as being big.
GHOST TOWN (2008). Directed by David Koepp. Written by Koepp & John Kamps. Cast: Greg Kinnear, Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni, aasif Mandvi, Bridget Moloney, Raymon J. Lee, Kristen Wig.