Friday, September 19, 2008


Review: Ghost Town
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

By the end of “Ghost Town,” the new spectral comedy from screenwriter-turned-director David Koepp (“Secret Window”), I was stuck on the fence. Here is a movie that is markedly mediocre, highly predictable, and almost instantly forgettable. At the same time, it boasts a very funny lead performance and a surprisingly heartwarming third act, leaving my opinions in limbo. My hope is that, by the end of this review, I'll have crossed over to one side or the other.

If Ebeneezer Scrooge had a great-great-grandson who moved across the pond to Manhattan, he'd probably be something like Bertram Pincus, an antisocial dentist who hates everyone and chose his profession, mainly, because he can shut people up with cotton and Novocaine whenever they get too chatty. On his day off, Bertram undergoes a colonoscopy (the easy explanation for which is potty-joke potential) and, after an adverse reaction to anesthesia, is declared dead – for seven minutes. When he wakes up, he realizes he's been gifted with a sixth sense: he can see (and hear) dead people. But for someone like Bertram, who avoids strangers on the street like thorn bushes, this is no gift at all. His worst nightmare has come true: the needy souls of deceased New Yorkers, from construction workers, to cops, to little old ladies, have gotten wind of his ability and won't leave him alone. One of them is Frank Herlihy, a fast-talking opportunist who's killed off in the first scene by a speeding bus. Frank tells Bertram that he'll back off (and, somehow, get the others to as well) if Bertram agrees to help foil the forthcoming marriage of Frank's widow, Gwen, a curator of sorts, working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bertram is played by brash Brit Ricky Gervais, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning star of the UK version of the TV series “The Office,” and the movie is definitely his star vehicle. Gervais is excellent here, delivering every line and insult with that acerbic, English-style matter-of-factness. That he was cast in the role does wonders for the film. Frank is played by Greg Kinnear, a fine actor who's made indispensable contributions to dramedies like “As Good as it Gets” (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and “Little Miss Sunshine.” In “Ghost Town,” he doesn't do much to put a stamp on his character, and we can easily envision many other actors filling Frank's shifty shoes. Gwen is played by Tea Leoni, a gifted and underrated actress whose natural beauty, stern focus, and contralto-like voice usually combine to create intelligent, emotionally complex characters (see: “Deep Impact” and “The Family Man”). She displays those same qualities here, giving Gwen, who still can't quite let go of Frank after 14 months, just the right balance of fragility and strength.

As a writer, Koepp has penned his fair share of thrills and spooks for directors like Steven Spielberg (“Jurassic Park,” “War of the Worlds”) and David Fincher (“Panic Room”). As director and writer, he crafted another film about a man who sees ghosts, the 1999 shocker “Stir of Echoes.” “Ghost Town” marks Koepp's first foray into supernatural comedy since 1992 when he scripted the eternal youth-gone-awry giggler, “Death Becomes Her,” for Robert Zemeckis. The gap seems to have left him a little dry for fresh ideas. His new offering unfolds like a Top 40 pop song: familiar hook, familiar lyrics, familiar beat (it has annoying, repetitive elements, too, like characters who insist on interrupting one another -- a joke that's meant to inspire laughs but, from me, elicited groans). The film is built like a catchy tune, but don't expect it to stick in your head.

Any moviegoer worth his or her salt can anticipate the turns of this plot. As one would expect, Bertram (somewhat) fulfills Frank's request and then regrets it. As one would expect, Bertram and Gwen entertain a romance that could only occur in the movies. As one would expect, Gwen finds out that there's more to Bertram's story, resulting in the inevitable, all-is-lost betrayal scene. As one would expect, Bertram's journey through the film helps him to rejoin the human race, thanks (in large part) to those who are no longer a part of it. Just like Scrooge, he's a hopeless grump until some insightful spirits show him the error of his ways. And then, the unexpected happens: the film takes a big tug on your heartstrings and doesn't let go. Once Bertram sees those errors and commits to fixing them, “Ghost Town” goes tender, with at least one tear-jerking surprise, and ends its last verse on a warm high note.

You can see my dilemma. And where do I stand now that all is said and done? Ultimately, I'd feel guilty advising readers against this ultimately – for lack of a better word – 'nice' movie. And it does have moments of true hilarity, specifically when the other actors seem genuinely entertained by the sporadic improv of Gervais, a genuine comedic talent. So, go ahead, have a night out on the “Ghost Town” (sorry, I couldn't resist), just be fully aware of the film's certain afterlife: the DVD clearance rack.

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