Wholly Spirited

Ricky Gervais stars in this comedy about a dentist who suddenly starts seeing ghosts, all of whom happen to want favors from him. Video by Courtesy of Dreamworks
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

There's a special place in heaven reserved for that all-too-rare cinematic occurrence: the Really Good Movie. And "Ghost Town," a by-turns hilarious and affecting romantic comedy starring Ricky Gervais, is headed straight for it.

Really Good does not mean Great: The RGM doesn't aspire to epic grandeur or strained (and usually pseudo-) moral seriousness. Rather, the RGM goes about its business honestly, aiming carefully and hitting its mark with wit, intelligence, skill and heart. The RGM doesn't overreach, and in that very modesty it attains something of surpassing value.

"Ghost Town" marks the Hollywood breakout performance of Gervais, deservedly adored by TV audiences for his shows "The Office" (the BBC version) and "Extras." He's cropped up in film cameos in recent years ("Night at the Museum," "For Your Consideration"), often exhibiting his unmatched skills as the master of the improvised sentence fragment. "Ghost Town" makes the most of Gervais's gift for ad-libbing, which results in scenes that bubble and build until the audience is weeping with laughter for no apparent reason other than that a man is retching while a Great Dane pants alongside him at precisely eye level.

The difference here is that Gervais, known for creating characters of outlandish insensitivity and boorishness, gets to go a little deeper into the vulnerabilities that have always animated those sad little men. Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic Manhattan dentist whose emotional armor is unexpectedly pierced when he develops the ability to see ghosts, often resembles a version of "The Office's" David Brent or "Extras' " Andy Millman after an emotional growth spurt.

On paper, "Ghost Town" sounds like one of those ghastly high-concept popcorn-delivery vehicles that Millman himself would have disdained: Pincus goes in for a routine colonoscopy (the film's first side-splitting scene, featuring Kristen Wiig as his physician) and comes out of the hospital with second sight. Then, while adjusting to the crowd of spirits who want him to settle their unfinished earthly business, he meets the recently departed Frank (Greg Kinnear), who agrees to call off the supplicants if Bertram will just bollix up the impending marriage of his young widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni), to a too-perfect prig.

The way, while occasionally a bit convoluted, is paved with all manner of amusing encounters and laugh-out-loud set pieces, but "Ghost Town" is about moments, not punch lines. This is a "you have to be there" movie: You have to be there when Gervais, in full improvisatory swing, asks a young doctor if he's on a school field trip as Bertram is being wheeled in for his, ahem, procedure. You have to be there when Gervais and Leoni crack up over a shared joke about China; you have to be there when Gervais is coughing up a hairball alongside that Great Dane.

And you really have to be there when Gwen spies the little tag that Bertram has left on the new shirt he bought just for her. That last bit is just one of many in "Ghost Town" that are not only funny but genuinely touching, and as the story takes its dips and turns, writer-director David Koepp delivers not just the romance and comedy that so many romantic comedies sorely lack, but also a surprisingly new take on loving and letting go.

As welcome as that added dash of profundity is, the myriad pleasures of "Ghost Town" are to be had at the hands of its players, who work in harness here with easygoing, infectious brio. Kinnear, whose character is continually wearing a tux and -- there apparently being no cellphone reception in limbo -- compulsively checking his BlackBerry, personifies the Manhattan gadabout of yore, slipping in and out of the Monkey Bar and the Metropolitan Museum. (With Woody Allen otherwise engaged in Europe, it's fallen to Koepp to portray New York at its New Yorkiest, which he does with swank panache.) The banter between Gervais and Kinnear often resembles a 21st-century version of Cyrano de Bergerac, and Gervais handles his first big-screen pop with warmth and appeal, thoroughly and believably transforming Bertram from Scrooge-in-a-smock to lovable antihero by the lyrical, lovely finale.

For all the pleasures to be had at Gervais's off-the-cuff genius, it's when Leoni arrives on the scene that "Ghost Town" takes flight. Her generation's version of Carole Lombard (with just a whiff of Jean Arthur's anxious edge thrown in), Leoni proves yet again to be a hugely gifted screwball comedienne, and her scenes with Gervais pop and fizz with a contagious sense of mutual enjoyment.

Such a small thing, really. But such unforced spontaneity is yet another mark of the RGM, all the more difficult for being so simple. Come to think of it, RGM could just as easily stand for Ricky Gervais Movie. If "Ghost Town" is any indication of what that particular genre has in store, audiences have reason for cheer. And heaven might want to make a little more room.

Ghost Town (103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for strong profanity, sexual humor and drug references.

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