GHOST TOWN (2008, directed by David Koepp, 102 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Have you ever had a classical musician dazzle you with their instrumental brilliance, then knock out a jaunty version of something like “Three Blind Mice” for a tongue-in-cheek encore? The Office creator Ricky Gervais’ first Hollywood star vehicle plays out something like that — a comic genius breathing life into the most shop-worn of premises. With Extras, Gervais’ follow-up to his instantly classic The Office, the potato-faced comic showed he was no fluke, milking unpredictable hilarity out of his frequently humiliated, put-upon persona. Even though both those shows end with romantic bliss, their biting intelligence kept them far away from the formulaic comedies that get churned out with depressing regularity in the U.S. To those acquainted with his work, it feels like a slap in the face that he should make his leading man debut in a romantic comedy/fantasy co-starring smarmy smart-ass Greg Kinnear, which is just the kind of project his character in Extras would use to illustrate the soullessness of Hollywood.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: A misanthropic dentist briefly dies during surgery and return to life with the ability to see dead people. By taking on the unfinished business of these pestering ghost he re-awakens his love of life and wins the heart of Greg Kinnear’s mourning widow, played by Tea Leoni . Following the film critics handbook, this should be the paragraph where I describe all the witty hi-jinks that ensue. Sad thing is none of this will sound funny on paper as Ghost Town hits every expected plot point, cobbling together bits of Topper, Ghost and a zillion other supernatural comedies. Written and directed by frequent Spielberg collaborator David Koepp, here’s a film that steers away from any original idea, straight towards the smooth waters of deadening predictability. Like Mr. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, a leading character this grouchy really only has one place to go: towards the light of Divinely-dispensed humility.
But if there is any proof of the Divine here, it is in that fact that Gervais consistently makes this piffle engaging. Like Bill Murray at his best, Gervais has a devastating comic timing that milks humor out of lines that would seem flat on the page. While what is happening around him isn’t particularly funny (lots of proctology jokes and gags about no one seeing the ghosts to whom he is talking) Gervais ‘ disbelief at the vapidness of the world around him triggers laughs from one end of this film to other. Its been a while since I’ve heard an audience laugh out loud as often as the preview audience did. Yet a comic personae can get old quick — one day you’re electrifying audiences in 48 Hours, next thing you know, you’re Norbit.The excitement of seeing Gervais’ talent up on the big screen wins him a pass here, lets hope he soon takes that reins on a project worthy of his talent before Hollywood beckons for Ghost Town 2. C+