GHOST TOWN, the long time in-coming breakthrough leading role of legendary to Brits writer/director/actor/comedian Ricky Gervais, is a surprisingly good movie, free from the heavy shackles of slapstick (i.e. Simon Pegg’s attempt at breaking U.S.), decidedly more “com than rom” and with a sweet and charming side that will leave even the most cynical enchanted.

And even though GHOST TOWN borrows quite heavily from the Cary Grant classic TOPPER, M. Night’s THE SIXTH SENSE, the best of W.C. Fields and I say a little of Bill Murray from SCROOGED and GROUNDHOG DAY, it remarkably manages to stay original and hides it’s many cliches through Gervais’ master touch at character and the strong performances from the supporting players.

Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a dentist, a profession largely ignored by Hollywood screenwriters over the years because of the instant turn-off factor that comes with their territory, but that’s precisely the point here, we aren’t really suppose to like Bertram. He is an anti-social misanthropic asshole.

He dislikes people, finds it a chore to go through the rigours of the necessary daily chit-chat with either his colleagues, his patients or the people living in his apartment block. He just can’t be bothered with it, he isn’t happy until he has the quiet of his own flat… where he can wallow in his own self pity and loathing.

In that sense, he’s a little like Curb’s persona of Larry David, the likeable aspect to him comes when you see his point in questioning the set rules of the world and the choice of words others use in conversation. A particular highlight is a back and forth conversation between him and a hospital secretary (played by the hilarious Kristen Wiig) over just exactly the usefulness of the personal questions he is being asked before routine surgery and then later the worrying aspect of seeing a doctor who is to work on him looking more like a kid on work experience than a qualified surgeon.

The mannerisms the script allows, the half finished sentences and witty comebacks, the usual Gervais’ routine which you should be familiar with now from The Office and Extra’s is in full work here. I was not surprised to see this film feel heavily ad-libbed or re-written to suit Gervais’ persona of character. But it works, for once we have a full person and not a Patrick Dempsey or a James Marsden going through the rom-com motions.

As typical as an episode of The Twilight Zone, bad things will happen to assholes and after complications from this minor surgery which saw him legally dead for a little under seven minutes, he now finds that he can see and talk to dead people. He has bridged the gap between the living and the dead and now instead of just having to put up with the humans he dislikes each day, he now most do the same with the ghosts of New York City and their unfinished businesses’.

The most vocal ghost being Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear playing a twist on the Angel Clarence from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) who believes his unfinished business is to find someone (which ends up being Pincus) who can wreck the new relationship of his wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) who has found a new man in his absence but of course once Pincus gets close to her… well… by now you know where this is going.

I’m not going to lie to you. It’s a movie you will forever be at least one step ahead of… even the attempts at twisting things from Spielberg’s favourite screenwriter David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK, INDY IV) and his co-scribe John Kamps (ZATHURA) won’t be able to beat you to the punchline or pay-off but I kept being drawn back to the performances, the strong characters and the great pacing as all being effective.

Tea Leoni is a breath of fresh air here, I don’t think I have ever found her so relaxed, so charming and sweet. Her laugh brings the film alive, you can see why Pincus would instantly fall for her and Kinnear is solid in a thankless and extremely difficult role. He plays it well and without any direct dialogue with Leoni, you can feel the chemistry and loss of a relationship they once shared.

For the directing side of Koepp (INDIANA JONES, JURASSIC PARK), this is his lightest film yet and after the suspense thrillers SECRET WINDOW and STIR OF ECHOES… I think he’s actually come the closest to making a film that works here.

Actually more than close, this does work. I love the end line of this movie, you will be grinning all the way back home.

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This article was first posted on October 26, 2008