I was just despairing of ever seeing a current movie again which I could recommend to the readers of MercatorNet when a friend urged me to see Ghost Town. It’s not a great movie that will be canonised in future film courses, but like the films of Charlie Chaplin it makes you laugh and then cry, and the audience where I saw it in “progressive” Santa Cruz, California, gave it a round of applause.
It’s the story of a misanthropic dentist (Ricky Gervais) – he doesn’t dislike crowds, just the individuals in them. When he undergoes a colonoscopy, he dies for seven minutes, and upon recovery, he finds he now has the ability to see the ghosts wandering the streets of Manhattan, all of them clamouring for favours. Of course he ignores them, but a persistent ghost, Greg Kinnear, won’t leave him alone and insists that Gervais prevent the remarriage of Kinnear’s widow, Tia Leone, to a man Kinnear dislikes. She, interestingly enough, is an Egyptologist specialising in mummies, those dead who survive physically as her husband has survived spiritually. Needless to say Gervais and Leone fall in love, and Gervais changes from a nerd into a mensch.
Because of the predictability of the plot, reviewers have given the film ho-hum reviews, concentrating mainly on Gervais, a British TV star, writer, and producer, whose deadpan wit does indeed carry the movie. But in the case of familiar genres, whether westerns or comedies, natural or supernatural, it’s not the originality of the plot that counts but how well the conventions are executed.
So while Ghost Town does not quite measure up to Groundhog Day (1993), it does very well in all departments. Gervais proves a great comic talent, and he is ably supported by Leone, who plays a real woman, a kind of 30s heroine rather than a sex object. New York sparkles in its autumnal light and is depicted as lovingly as in a Woody Allen film. The script, written by the director David Koepp, is genuinely funny, despite a few vulgarities no doubt required to ensure a PG-13 rating, thought to be more commercially viable.
After the botched operation, there’s a hilarious exchange between Gervais and his surgeon, Kristin Wiig, a Saturday Night Live veteran, that wittily illustrates his and her problems in communication. Koepp is best known as a screenwriter, having worked on several Steven Spielberg films, including Jurassic Park (1993) as well as writing the original and best Spider-Man (2002), but he’s also a more than competent director as well.
And yet there are a few unexpected twists. The new fiancé, Bill Campbell, a politically-correct activist, turns out to be genuine, not a fraud or hypocrite, in the Ralph Bellamy mode, whom Gervais must expose. His rejection comes from Leone, not from his flaws in character or manliness. Best of all, instead of the ghosts returning or hanging around in order to protect or warn the living, which is the case in most ghost films, here they depend on the living to release them from their earthly longings and responsibilities. I doubt that Koepp meant to illustrate the efficacy of prayers for the dead or Purgatory, but so it is. Kinnear, for instance, plays a morally flawed ghost, as selfish and deceptive in the afterlife as he was before, so that just as Gervais undergoes a transformation or conversion, so too must Kinnear, thanks to Gervais.
What particularly strikes me about Ghost Town is how easily it and films like it – I think of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake, Heaven Can Wait (1978), Bruce Almighty (2002), and of course Groundhog Day – all get right at the meaning of life without being didactic and preachy. And what is that? Serve others not yourself. Having a vertical, supernatural dimension, like Clarence the Guardian Angel or a morally flawed ghost, obviously helps the task. We would not want all films to be like this, and many of them that try flop miserably — which makes a successful one like Ghost Town all the more enjoyable.
William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of “Hollywood: An Epic Production”, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.