Surprising slice of heaven
DIRECTED by David Koepp, is a supernatural romantic comedy, never an easy thing to bring off. There have been successful supernatural romances ( Ghost ) and successful supernatural comedies ( Ghostbusters , of course), but successful supernatural romantic comedies are thin on the ground. And when, like this one, they come with an ingenious script, sparkling performances and genuinely moving moments, we have cause for celebration.
All that’s missing from Ghost Town are car chases and spectacular action sequences. But I have no doubt that Koepp, who wrote last year’s Indiana Jones sequel for Steven Spielberg, could have supplied some if requested.
The materials sound cliched and unpromising. We open with a shot of Manhattan, the streets sunlit and deserted, but soon miraculously full of scurrying pedestrians. Many of them are ghosts, and my sixth sense kept telling me I’d seen this before. Like the aliens popping up everywhere in Men in Black , ghosts pop up everywhere in New York City. Among the more voluble is Frank ( Greg Kinnear), a smooth-talking wife-cheater who dodges a falling airconditioner in an early scene, only to be bowled over by a bus. Frank picks himself up, dusts himself off, and people walk right through him. Dammit, he’s dead: invisible to mortals but not to us, and improbably dressed for the rest of the film in black tie and dinner suit (‘‘ we wear the clothes we died in’’).
More surprising is the film’s leading character, Bertram Pincus, a dentist, played by Ricky Gervais, star of the British sitcom The Office. Is there a less likely hero for a Hollywood romance than a surly English dentist? It’s one thing to have Hugh Grant, Roger Moore, Cary Grant and other Englishmen in romantic Hollywood roles, but Gervais is a study in concentrated nerdishness: plump, middle-aged, self-absorbed and rude to everyone. By his own admission he’s wholly lacking in people skills. Undergoing a routine medical procedure, Pincus awakens after a neardeath experience to discover he has been clinically dead for seven minutes and can communicate with ghosts, who see in him a useful bridge between the spirit world and the living.
Manhattan’s spectral community is portrayed as a sort of worthy lobby group, a disadvantaged minority with just grievances ( though you would think that ghosts would long ago have outnumbered the ranks of living people). Troupes of ghosts follow Pincus to his apartment and his surgery, begging him to convey messages to surviving friends and loved ones. A ghostly dad wants his grieving son to know the whereabouts of a lost teddy bear. There’s an unhappy mum whose letter to her daughter has gone astray. Can Pincus sort things out? The most insistent lobbyist is Frank, who wants Pincus to break up a developing romance between Gwen, Frank’s less than grief-stricken widow ( Tea Leoni) and her new boyfriend. Gwen, an Egyptologist, has taken delivery of a newly unearthed mummy for an exhibition of antiquities, and is delighted when Pincus diagnoses the cause of death after a brief dental inspection. Such are the unlikely beginnings of an unlikely romance.
It’s soon clear that Ghost Town is no ordinary romantic comedy or vacuous special-effects extravaganza but an unusually sharp and sophisticated study of broken relationships and the pains of bereavement. Koepp and his co-writer John Kamps don’t need ghosts to tell their story: with a few adjustments, the characters could all have been living people, distanced by circumstance and misunderstanding. This precarious sense of reality gives the film its poignancy and charm. Yes, there are plenty of funny lines, but the ghostly characters are no less real and vulnerable than the living. The French might have made the film without ghosts, and went close to doing so in Apres Vous , Pierre Salvadori’s bitterly funny idyll of love and death, about a man who rescues a stranger from suicide and falls for his girlfriend.
So it comes as no surprise when Pincus, the insufferable misanthrope, falls for Gwen, the delightful extrovert. Ricky Gervais handles Pincus’s transformation from grumpy codger to smitten lover with wonderful skill. It’s a process no less touching than Brad Pitt’s miraculous rejuvenation The Curious Case of Benjamin Button , and some may find Koepp’s film the more moving. It is certainly much funnier. A lot of it plays like a two-hander, exploiting the contrast between Kinnear’s savvy prattler and Gervais’s lonely, unhappy grump.
The ghost as invisible third-party presence eavesdropping on intimate conversations has been a comedy staple since Blithe Spirit . Michael Powell turned a similar trick in A Matter of Life and Death . And it works here because all three main characters act so well together. I haven’t been a close follower of Leoni’s career. She was in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending , but made little impression on me in Deep Impact and I barely remember her in James L. Brooks’s likeable Spanglish . But her Gwen is a joy: a beguiling blend of sweetness and intelligence, a perfect foil for her three competing admirers.
The film is a triumph of discipline and restraint: minimal gimmickry, no crude jokes and a brisk line in storytelling. With his photographer Fred Murphy and production designer Howard Cummings, Koepp has given the film a severely realistic edge, full of stark interiors and contrasting tones. Sorrow and darkness aren’t far below the surface of this lovely comedy, which makes our laughter more agreeable, and more frequent.
Dead load: Greg Kinnear, centre, plays a meddlesome spirit in Ghost Town