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The Ghost Town (Movie) Review

Ghost Town is a cynical supernatural comedy that had the misfortune of getting turned into a sentimental date movie in the last act of the film.

There’s a popular theory with American film makers that you absolutely have to give the audience someone to identify with. In England, especially with comedies, there’s a tendency to create characters not to identify with or sympathize with, but to laugh at and ridicule. I have vivid memories of a film major friend suffering mild cognitive dissonance after seeing Pulp Fiction. He loved the movie, but there weren’t any “good guys” in it, so he wasn’t sure who he was supposed to be identifying with. He settled on the Bruce Willis character before his brain exploded.

Ghost Town is about unpleasant people. Ricky Gervais stars as an ill-mannered dentist whose goal in life seems to be to dismiss people as quickly as possible so he can just be left alone. Through a medical mishap, he dies and after being revived has the misfortune to be able to hear the many restless ghosts of New York City. Greg Kinnear is the ghost of an obnoxious, adulterous lawyer with a shoe fetish who won’t give Gervais a moment’s piece until he breaks up the impending marriage of Kinnear’s widow to a do-gooder of annoyingly epic proportions. Gervais is also constantly chased around the city by a veritable army of restless spirits ranging from an old women to construction workers to the ghost of a naked guy who turns up at the most awkward times.

You’ve got irascible characters with plausible reasons to clash. You’ve got an anti-cupid plotline. You’ve got some supernatural hi-jinks on the side. You’ve also got a lovely sub-plot of the hospital’s lawyer supervising doctor visits and bending over backwards to avoid any liability. You’d think this would add up to a dark, cynical comedy in the British style, especially since you’re wrapping this around a major British comedic actor.

It does, and all is good for a little more than half way through the movie, but then it takes a diversion into sentimentalist twaddle. Yes, in stereotypical fashion, Gervais falls for the widow (Tea Leoni). This isn’t bad at all, initially, with the twit dentist trying to impress a lady and only scoring points by accident. Just when things should start darkening more, suddenly we’re in Family Movie mode. 

Gervais isn’t a bad guy, he’s just damaged from the past. Oh, misunderstandings with the widow. Oh, the heartfelt pain. Yes, we now must help the poor bereaved spirits who all have tug-at-the-heartstrings stories. If I wanted to watch the Ghost Whisperer, I’ve got a VCR, y’know? And, by all mean, let’s put a dog in it, just for the sake of having a dog. Really, that’s not a cliche.

The film briefly pulls out of its nosedive for a bit utter hilarity before a tailspin into a “aw, gee whiz” ending quite out of whack in tone with the first half hour or so.

When the film is on, the laughs are frequent and deep. Gervais and Kinnear make a good pair for bickering and the hospital lawyer scenes are wonderful. They even make good use of a too-noble-to-be-real boyfriend in ways that avoid groans by dropping a well-placed punchline before he wears out his welcome. If you like cheesy romance films with a gimmick, there’s a good gimmick here and you could do a lot worse, but my sense is some studio wonk started sending script notes to veer the final product away from something closer to one of co-writer/director David Keopp’s earlier, darker, writing efforts, Death Becomes Her, and more into the realm of schmaltz.

Not a horrible film if you need something for a date, and I think highly of the first two acts, but it could have been finished much higher up in the horror-comedy pantheon.

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