Smartly supernatural, and featuring sensational performances by Ricky Gervais and Tea Leoni, “Ghost Town” is a “Topper” for our times, and will probably do for Gervais what his previous projects haven’t — namely, brand the Emmy-winning Brit comic in America as a source of sophisticated, snarky fun. The proper tweaking by Paramount could make for major B.O.
The philandering Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) is walking along a Manhattan street when he steps in front of a bus to avoid being hit by a falling air conditioner. “Is he dead?” someone asks. “He isn’t happy,” someone answers. For us, Frank rematerializes as one of the myriad ghosts walking around Manhattan with unfinished business — in Frank’s case, the happiness of his widow, Gwen (Leoni).
Flash forward to Bertram Pincus (Gervais), a dentist who’s all scrubbed cheeks and misanthropy, having what should be a routine colonoscopy — the lead-up to which is hysterical — but instead leaves Bertram with a question: Who were all those people in his room? When he starts seeing dead people, and they realize he can see them, they start following him around, becoming an annoyance the fussy Bertram can barely tolerate.
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One of the spirits following Bertram around is Frank, who wants Bertram to break off Gwen’s engagement to another man. The long unloved Bertram falls for her, of course, and their romance, though not untroubled, is as charming as the rest of the movie. Helmer David Koepp has created a fantasy New York that’s underpopulated (by the living), but it fits Gervais perfectly. The script, by Koepp and John Kamps, works backward and forward: Only after it’s revealed that Bertram can see the dead does it become clear why he was asking about the crowd in his hospital room, where people have been dying for years. (In fact, frequent medical malpractice has led to high turnover: “We have a very strict three-strikes policy,” says his doctor, played by a delightful Kristen Wiig.)
But Koepp isn’t afraid to explore “Ghost Town’s” mournful subtext — some of its characters are, after all, dead — which makes the humor all the more biting. It also provides for the occasional moment of genuine pathos: Frank thinks his affairs have gone unnoticed by Gwen, and they haven’t. That revelation is handled with great delicacy and sadness; Gervais is there, luckily, to readjust the mood.
Leoni has developed into perhaps our most Capra-esque comedienne, and her chemistry with Gervais is potent, even if she does act like a human laugh track for Bertram at the beginning of their relationship.
“Ghost Town” is something of a love letter to New York, which assumes one of its many incarnations under Koepp, namely Autumnal Paradise. Even dead people walking the Upper East Side can’t dull the effect.
Production values are superb.