Title: Ghost Town
Year: 2008
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Play time: 2
Director: David Koepp
Screenwriters: David Koepp, John Kamps
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Téa Leoni

Ghost Town was written and directed by David Koepp, the highest-paid screenwriter in the business and among the most prolific. (You may have heard of some of his work: Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, just to name a few.) He’s also one of my favorites; few have ever been better at crafting pop filmmaking that’s slick, simple and effective, adopting archetypes without turning them into cliches, and tugging at our heartstrings without insulting us or drowning us in corn syrup.

Like the rest of Koepp’s directorial efforts (The Trigger Effect, Stir of Echoes and Secret Window), Ghost Town is smaller in scale than the often-gargantuan screenplays he writes for others. But the idea is the same: this is an unpretentious genre exercise, effective and rarely annoying, executed with a measure of grace and skill. This time, I think, Koepp leans a little too hard on genre tropes that have been around the block a few too many times: more cliche, in other words, than archetype. As a result, some of the moving parts squeak, especially toward the end. But it’s still largely a pleasure.

Things start out swimmingly, as Koepp sends Ricky Gervais to do what he does best: play an oblivious narcissist. Where David Brent (Gervais’s character on The Office) was flamboyantly, cluelessly arrogant, though, Dr. Bertram Pincus, DDS, takes indifference as his modus operandi. He’s a dentist, he half-jokes, because he gets to shove cotton wads in his patients’ mouths, the better not to hear the mundane details of their daily lives. He literally leaps out of the way of a pamphleteer hawking environmentalist literature. His response to a woman rushing for the elevator carrying a large box is to hammer the “Door Close” button while calling out an apologetic “so sorry.” If you’ve seen Gervais before, you know why this sort of thing is so much funnier in his exceedingly British, perpetually incredulous delivery.

The hook: Dr. Pincus dies for seven minutes (“a bit less”) after insisting on general anesthesia for his colonoscopy, and wakes up able to see ghosts. Since he is the only one who can see them, they logically flock to him, begging him to finish their unfinished business. The most aggressive of these is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), who offers a deal: if Pincus will help break up his wife’s engagement to a man who is apparently an asshole, he will get his dead brethren to leave Pincus alone. His wife (Tea Leoni) is, of course, the woman who rushed for the elevator. And Pincus, suddenly smitten, decides that the best way to stop the marriage is to get her to fall for him instead.

Everything leading up to this is breezy and often very funny; a scene involving a negotiation between Pincus, his doctor (Saturday Night Live‘s Kristen Wiig), and a hulking hospital attorney (Michael-Leon Wooley) is downright hysterical. Koepp and his co-writer approach the supernatural angle with a certain amount of logic (gratifyingly, the fact that everyone else can see Pincus talking to what appears to be empty space is acknowledged and even becomes a plot point from time to time), and earn points for largely speeding past the part where Pincus runs around thinking he’s crazy and hallucinating. Even when Pincus begins to court Leoni’s Gwen, things continue to look up: his attempts to act like a social human being around her are priceless.

Ghost Town only runs into problems when the script directs Gwen to start falling for Pincus. This, alas, requires: 1) Gwen to act like a semi-comatose idiot; 2) all manner of silly contrivance involving a mummy with dental problems; and 3) an unconvincing and unsatisfying transformation on the part of Pincus from self-absorbed jackass to adorable object of Gwen’s affections. It’s not so much that Pincus learns the importance of living for others that’s a problem; that part is actually kind of touching. But the way Gwen supposedly comes around to him, and then gets over his insistence that he communicates with the dead, is frankly kind of stupid. Maybe more importantly, it reveals that the movie, at its core, is a prototypical “false pretenses” romantic comedy — the kind where one character starts a relationship with another on a bet, a job, or in this case instructions from the dead, but actually falls in love in the process. The way this plays out is by far the least interesting part of the film, and no surprise: it’s one of Hollywood’s most overdone plots.

Despite all this, Koepp manages to rebound with a denoument that actually caused me to coo “aaaaw,” out loud, at the screen. And I won’t deny the charms of Ricky Gervais, and the movie’s light feet and quick wit. It gets a little lazy, but I liked it anyway.

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