Sur­pris­ing slice of heaven

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.