Far and away the best movie to open this week, David Koepp’s Ghost Town is a work that makes for an interesting comparison with two of the other local openers this week, in that it succeeds in areas that neither the dismal My Best Friend’s Girl nor the admirable Frozen River do. It’s both more romantic and funnier than the former and more emotionally involving than the latter (for me, at least). Unfortunately, Ghost Town seems to be a film that not too many people are terribly interested in seeing. In part, I suspect, due to its God-awful generic title. Is Ghost Town really the best Koepp and co-writer John Kamps could come up with? The film deserves better.
The story isn’t terribly fresh. The premise of a ghost—or multiple ghosts—that only one person can see dates back to at least Topper (1937), to which Ghost Town owes a significant debt. It also owes a bit to a much more recent—and more serious-minded—work, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). This is only fair, since Koepp’s very effective supernatural thriller Stir of Echoes, which was released a month after Sense, got buried in the rush to (over)praise Shyamalan’s film. Here we have a film with a main character who also sees dead people, but, as the tag line puts it, “they annoy him.” So what you end up with is The Sixth Sense by way of Topper—with twists. And the twists are what make Ghost Town its very own dose of ectoplasmic antics.
Ghost Town follows what happens when a spectacularly unpleasant, socially inept dentist, Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), dies for seven minutes (or “slightly less”) during a colonoscopy and comes back to life with the undeniably awkward ability to see the world is full of ghosts wandering about. These aren’t scary ghosts, mind you, though some of them are pretty pushy. These are folks with “unfinished business.” (This concept probably dates back to the beginnings of drama, but directly connects to Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom. In the play, spirits are sent back to earth to finish often very small things before being allowed to enter the door to “the eternal light,” which is very similar to the one here.) Since Pincus can see these ghosts, they hope to persuade him to help them—without having reckoned on his less than charitable nature.
One ghost, however, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a philandering husband out to prevent his widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni), from marrying “the wrong man,” strikes a deal with Pincus: Take care of this one thing and all of the ghosts will leave him alone. This one thing, however, isn’t all that simple—not in the least because Gwen lives in Pincus’ building and already knows him as a singularly nasty little man who has been needlessly rude to her on at least a dozen occasions. That, of course, is the crux of the drama as well as the comedy and romance that follow.
What could have been truly lame material becomes something else altogether thanks to Koepp and Kamps’ screenplay, Koepp’s assured direction and the expert playing of the cast, especially the three principals. It’s really in the little touches that the film scores its points—little touches with a big cumulative effect that makes everything seem remarkably fresh. These range from such passing things as having mortals sneeze whenever a ghost passes through them (a running gag that knows when to stop running) to far more substantial ones like what constitutes “marrying the wrong man” (this is very refreshingly handled).
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Ghost Town is the savviness with which it balances comedy and romance, and the fact that its comedy is almost always rather kind and character-based. (It’s very easy to believe this film is from the same writers who penned the underrated Zathura (2005).) Notice, for example, the gag of Pincus in his new shirt (bought specifically to impress Gwen) with the tag still on the back of it. It’s not just funny; it’s a humanizing touch that marks the first moment when Gwen senses that Pincus is perhaps just a social disaster taking refuge behind a mask of supercilious nastiness. Ghost Town is full of such moments—even to the point of crafting the necessary penultimate reel of romantic misunderstandings in a manner that actually feels right and not merely a genre convention.
In some ways, Ghost Town is a throwback to an earlier time. It certainly has no relation to the already tiresome, raunchy rom-com popularized by Judd Apatow with The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007). And its fantasy premise is hardly part of our overall postmodern sensibility. It’s just possible, however, that these are its true strengths—the very things that give it something all too often lacking in mainstream movies these days: an identity. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual humor and drug references.