With his fishbelly pallor, lumpy physique and deeply unadventurous hair, Ricky Gervais — the creator and star of the original BBC version of "The Office" — seems an unlikely candidate for the lead role in a romantic comedy. And yet in "Ghost Town," constructing a character out of the most whimsical materials, he becomes oddly plausible. The picture is as programmatic as you'd expect; there are no real surprises. But the incomparable Gervais, buoyed by a sharp supporting cast, lends the potentially cloying story a nice vinegary tang.
He plays Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic New York dentist who dislikes other people in all their infinite variety. ("It's not so much crowds," he says, in the midst of a rush-hour rush, "as the individuals in the crowds.") The thing he most enjoys about being a dentist, in fact, is the opportunity it affords him to stick clamps and drains in their mouths and shut them up.
Pincus' life is radically re-routed when he develops a gastric affliction that requires a trip to the hospital for minor surgery. During this procedure, unfortunately, he flat-lines for seven minutes — or as his lawsuit-shy surgeon (the superb Kristin Wiig) delicately puts it, "You died. A little bit." After leaving the hospital, Pincus finds himself being accosted in the street by people who died a lot — completely, in fact. These are the ghosts of dead New Yorkers — spectral cops, construction workers, little old ladies — who have unfinished business with the friends and loved ones they've left behind, but with whom they can no longer communicate. Pincus, having dipped a toe into the dead pool, so to speak, can now see these otherwise-invisible ghosts (no one else with a pulse can) and act as their emissary among the living if he so chooses.
He does not so choose: the dead annoy Pincus as much as the living. But one defunctee — a well-to-do womanizer named Frank Herlihy (reliably charming Greg Kinnear) — is especially persistent. He wants Pincus to contact his widow, Gwen (Tï¿½a Leoni) — a woman he cheated on in life — and prevent her from marrying a man named Richard (Billy Campbell), whom Frank portrays as a pompous cad. Gwen is a beautiful Egyptologist employed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Leoni plays her with splendid comic assurance (especially whenever the character's giddy interest in mummy phalluses causes her to break out in a startling noise that's somewhere between a snort and a squeak). Gwen's a knockout, and Pincus is instantly — and, it would seem, hopelessly — smitten.
Scholars of this film genre will know that Pincus is fated to fall in love with Gwen, and she with him (sort of), but that something unpleasant will happen that will turn her totally against him, until something nice happens that will turn her back again, facing them both in the direction of a happy ending. This sort of story is always in danger of sinking into a puddle of narrative gloop, and director David Koepp (who wrote the sweet script with John Kamps) does get a little sticky. Was it really necessary to embed a dubious Einstein quote ("Only a life lived for others is worth living") in one scene? And, more distressingly, where is it written that every romantic comedy must ooze soothing acoustic-guitar ballads?
No matter. Gervais' Pincus, with his spiraling verbal tangents and grotesque attempts at "dental humor," resists most of the script's soft-focus inclinations, and happily snaps up the occasional barbs it offers. Asked to dedicate his dental talents to working among the poor in India, Pincus regrets that he doesn't function well in such "humid-y" places. "What're the teeth like in Palm Springs?" he asks brightly.
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