Review: Ghost Town's Another Feel-Good Ghost Movie

Who knew that The Sixth Sense could have a softer -- and romantic -- side? Well, Ghost Town is proof.

If you didn't know already, "New York is lousy with ghosts." They're loud, they're pushy, and ever since a near-death experience while under anesthesia, they've been haunting dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), pronounced "Pink-ass" by wise-ass ghost Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear). Haunted, in the way one can be haunted by telemarketers or a neighborhood troupe of girl scouts on a last-minute cookie campaign. All of them pestering him for favors that will help resolve business they left unfinished when they departed. Unfortunately, their misanthropic medium is more eternal Grinch than eternal do-gooder. He prefers stuffing cotton in people's mouths to faking interest in the words that come out of them -- be they dead or alive. Among his phantom posse is Frank, a recently deceased husband who promises to rid Pincus of his ethereal entourage if he helps Frank with his own earth-binding baggage, i.e., stop his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying a "scumbag lawyer." Bertram agrees and they set out to woo her away from the aforementioned suitor with Frank as a more-annoying-than-useful Cyrano to Pincus's "round-faced" and otherwise averagely endowed Christian.

A self-absorbed, socially challenged "jerk" who frequently pushes (or completely ignores) the tact envelope. A character with perfect comic mistiming, whose conversation accidentally (or intentionally) colors outside the lines of what's expected and makes the ordinary absurdly amusing. A man who is lovable despite his offensiveness. Bertram Pincus is a part Gervais has played before. And in Ghost Town he plays it neatly, within the scope of a script he didn't pen.

He's especially hilarious as he searches his dental office for an interrogation technique to extract information from Gwen's lawyer love, asking an Indian colleague for advice as Pincus assumes he must come from "a scary country."

Another comic virtuoso who's in familiar form, Kristen Wiig delivers the laughs you'd expect as a nervous, dubiously skilled doctor who can't stop talking about her spray tan.

Tea, Greg and the rest give equally solid and appropriately sentimental performances in a feel-good ghost story that, except for Gervais, feels and looks like many other feel-good ghost stories. Think a little bit Ghost, Just Like Heaven and Sixth Sense, plus a smidge of Roxanne.

While at times the cinema audience's laughter was thunderous, mine was more often a Seattle drizzle, or an occasional cloudburst. Yes, the humor registered on my comedy radar. But having seen the master work his madcap magic before, I kept wishing Gervais had written the story or was in a role where he would cut lose with the ingenuity and irreverence of Extras or The Office. Though the film does display his ever-endearing softer side. But then Ghost Town isn't necessarily about Ricky Gervais is it? Taking it for what it seems to be, a warm, fuzzy and somewhat philosophical and funny ghost story, it does seem a bit better than average (again, thanks to Gervais). For many, this may be entertaining enough. Alas, his presence in the film may have unfairly raised my expectations.

The Ricky Gervais I've watched and loved is a bull in a china shop -- or movie set, or the local branch of a paper company, or a human resources training video -- or any other location with an abundance of fragile social etiquette. In Ghost Town, he makes his presence known, and even rattles a few plates, but in the end, doesn't do the damage I'd hoped he would.

Grade: B-