“Ghost Town” is the kind of movie that can sink or swim on its casting alone. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t seen this film before: A cranky loner has to step outside of his comfort zone and learn to connect with people again, due to some crazy supernatural coincidence!
More specifically, as you can probably tell from the title, this is a romantic ghost story. You know, like “Ghost.” Or “Just Like Heaven,” with Reese Witherspoon. Hell, just this February, a Paul Rudd-Eva Longoria movie came out called “Over Her Dead Body” where the ghost tried to sabotage the living boyfriend’s new relationship.
So when I heard that Ricky Gervais, the “little fat man with a pug-nosed face” (as David Bowie famously called him on an episode of HBO’s “Extras”), was starring in a supernatural romantic comedy, I thought—well, that’s unusual.
It turns out the casting director was way ahead of me. Had it been just anybody from the typical stable of leading men in modern romantic comedies—say a Matthew McConaughey or an Adam Sandler or a Will Smith—then the movie would have been only as good as its script. Which isn’t bad, by the way—more on that in a second.
Instead, Ricky Gervais uses his quick wit and British priggishness to great effect in every scene he’s in and gives the script by writer/director David Koepp (best known for writing “Spider-Man” and “Jurassic Park”) a deeper sense of—believe it or not—believability. As a self-centered dentist who must grapple with the fact that dead people are suddenly asking him favors at every turn, he is just testy enough to feel make the silly seem authentic—and very, very funny.
Koepp’s idea may not be a truly original one, but what is these days? Instead, his screenplay gets at the heart of why people believe in ghosts in the first place—because people need closure. The ghosts that rattle around and haunt houses in the middle of the night usually do so because they died an unexpected death. In “Ghost Town,” the dead are in limbo, piling up on the streets of Manhattan, because they still have a message to communicate to the loved ones they left behind. It speaks to every natural instinct we have about the life and the movies. We want everything to be tied up neatly.
Gervais gives the movie its dose of cynicism, which almost seems required these days in a world where bleak comedies like “Burn After Reading” open at number one at the box office and “The Dark Knight” has become the second-highest grossing movie ever. But he also pulls off the tricky task of convincing an audience to love a prickly bastard, and root for his romance with ghost Greg Kinnear’s widow (Tea Leoni).
Essentially, “Ghost Town” is less about ghosts and more about the importance of the problems of everyday human beings. Thematically, it is the polar opposite of “Burn After Reading.” Where the characters in the Coens’ dark spoof do desperately awful things and learn nothing from it, Gervais’ annoyed doctor learns that the people whose mouths he is quite happy to stop from talking as they lie in his dentist’s chair might have more to offer than he gives them credit for.
And if that sounds cheesy, well, just be glad that an unlikely romantic lead like Ricky Gervais is there to offset it all every now and then.