Ricky Gervais as Bertram Pincus D.D.S.
Téa Leoni as Gwen
Greg Kinnear as Frank Herlihy
Kristen Wiig as Surgeon
Billy Campbell as Richard
Dana Ivey as Mrs. Pickthall
Aasif Mandvi as Dr. Prashar
Jeff Hiller as Naked Guy
Dylan Clark Marshall as Alex
Brian d’Arcy James as Irish Eddie
Dennis Albanese as Johnny
Directed by David Koepp
What starts as a wry high concept comedy catering to Ricky Gervais’ strengths as a comic turns into a sweet and moving relationship film about grieving, certainly a pleasant surprise for those not expecting it to have much to offer beyond its premise and star.
Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) is a New York dentist who generally hates everyone, but after a near-death during routine surgery, he suddenly starts seeing ghosts of people who’ve died around him, led by Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinear) a smooth-talking spirit who wants Bertram’s help in getting his widow Gwen (Téa Leoni) away from her new fiancé Richard (Billy Campbell). The plan is to create doubt in her mind that Richard is the one by having her fall for the cranky dentist, which might be harder than any of them think.
Filmmaker David Koepp explored the world of the supernatural in “Stir of Echoes” and there’s a similar metaphysical element to the high concept premise at the core of “Ghost Town,” his first real foray into comedy. That story revolves around an unfriendly Manhattan dentist, played by Ricky Gervais, who suddenly becomes the only person in Manhattan who can see all of the ghosts walking around, but it ends up being more of a relationship comedy using ghosts and spirits as its catalyst.
Only New Yorkers might be able to appreciate Bertram Pincus’ anti-social demeanor, but he’s perfected that rudeness into an artform, being short with his patients, his fellow practitioners, as well as his neighbors and his friendly doorman. It’s hard not to get some joy when learning of his intrusive colonoscopy, but in a bizarre twist, he dies during that routine operation, something he only learns after checking out and people start chasing him around the streets of New York excited by the fact that someone from the real world can see them. Apparently, these ghosts think Bertram can help them resolve the issues that have kept them tethered to the mortal coil, the most persistent one being the tuxedo-wearing Frank Herlihey (Kinnear) who we met as the film began on his last day as part of the living. Frank isn’t a very nice guy, having cheated on his wife Gwen (Leoni) with various younger women, but now dead, he’s hoping to make up for it by having Pincus tell her the truth about her new fiancé Richard. Just by coincidence, Pincus lives in the same building as Gwen and hasn’t been particularly nice to her, but she stirs something in the dentist he hasn’t felt before so he agrees to go along with Frank’s plan to try to win her heart.
On the surface, it’s easy to feel like you’ve seen something like this before from classics like “Heaven Can Wait” to any one of its many remakes and rip-offs. Wisely, Koepp realized he couldn’t sustain an entire movie on Ricky Gervais seeing and interacting with ghosts, and once Téa Leoni enters the picture, it turns into a meet-cute romantic comedy that’s not nearly as unbearable as the thought might sound. Koepp couldn’t do much better for collaborators than Gervais and Leoni, who bring so much to the interaction between their characters to make every scene even funnier. Their interplay feels very natural, and it’s equally funny when Kinnear’s ghost adds his commentary either to help or hurt Bertram’s chances with his widow.
Gervais is absolutely brilliant in his first leading film role, really selling the character in a way few other actors could do, Anyone who’s watched “Extras” knows that Gervais is capable of showing a lot of range, and it shouldn’t be too surprising his transition to romantic film lead is a fluid one. One imagines Koepp tailored the part for his star and allowed Gervais to do what he does best, because few actors could be so cranky and rude to everyone and still come across as charming and lovable, but that’s the genius of Gervais, and he exudes similar everyman qualities as stronger dramatic actors like Paul Giamatti that allows you to relate to the character even when he’s being a jerk. When he turns over a new leaf for the sake of impressing Gwen, he brings just the right amount of awkward nerdiness to the role that makes you like his character even more. It’s such a natural extension of some of Gervais’ television characters that it shouldn’t be hard for fans of his shows to appreciate this character.
Besides a couple of recurring ghosts who show up from time to time, the only other notable roles are those of Richard, Gwen’s fiancé who isn’t nearly as bad a guy as Frank makes him appear to be, and Kristen Wiig, who has a couple of hilarious scenes as an air-headed surgeon who seems more concerned with her spray-on tan than keeping her patients alive. It’s much like her character in “Knocked Up,” like a person we know or have met, and she’s so evenly-matched with Gervais in her comic timing that they’re the funniest scenes in the movie.
Because of the movie’s Manhattan setting, the movie seems a lot bigger in scale than Koepp’s previous movies, but instead of trying to be clever by showing off his knowledge of cool locations, he’s able to capture the scope of the city in a way few other directors have managed. The ghost effects aren’t nearly as impressive, because Koepp didn’t spend a lot of money on fancy CG effects to make the ghostly spirits seem flashy. Although they do seem kind of cheesy, by the time in the movie where it might bother you, you should already be won over by other aspects of the movie.
With such an abundance of laughs throughout the movie, the poignancy in the last act is likely to sneak up on you, because you’re laughing so much that when Gervais’ character tries to make up for past errors, it actually does work, and it really does make you feel good even when things turn out as you might expect.
The Bottom Line:
Sweet and heart-warming without being overly saccharine and smart without forcing one’s brain to work too hard, “Ghost Town” is one of those rare feel-good comedies that actually makes you feel good. Most of that is due to the abundant talents of Gervais and Leoni to make their characters and the relationship between them believable.
You can also check out an exclusive clip from the film, the scene where Gervais is admitted into the hospital for his surgery here.