Monday, September 22, 2008

Ghost Town

By Elise Nakhnikian

“Ghost town” pretty much describes the theater where I saw Ghost Town on its opening night, and that’s a shame.

This sweet-and-sour rom-com isn’t as good as the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 40s that I’m always raving about. It’s not even in the same league as Groundhog Day, another tale of a self-loathing misanthrope who earns the love of a warmhearted woman by learning to be a mensch. But that’s hardly a fair comparison. Precious few movies are that good, and Ghost Town is entertaining and original, a very satisfactory late-summer film.

A smartly sardonic new take on an old formula, Ghost Town is about a dead guy who can’t stop haunting the woman he loves, trying to engineer her romantic life from beyond the grave. It’s cowritten by director David Koepp, who made genre pieces like Stir of Echoes and The Paper pop by building them around believable characters and dialogue. He does the same here.

That aging-boy charm Greg Kinnear cranks out with such apparent ease fits the dead husband, Frank, like a glove – and so does the faint hint of self-doubt, maybe even desperation underlying that veneer of confidence. Frank was a philandering scumbag with a surfeit of surface charm, the kind of guy who loved to make things happen. But it’s hard to crack that whip when you’re dead.

Enter Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais, creator of the original version of The Office), a prickly loner whose life consists of shuttling between his dental office and a sterile apartment that looks like a page from a West Elm catalog.

After a mishap at a hospital caused him to die “just a little,” as his skittish surgeon puts it, Bertram finds himself surrounded by hordes of people wherever he goes. Turns out they’re dead, part of the throng of ghosts haunting New York City, who he can now see because he came so close to joining their ranks.

The ghosts are used to being invisible except to each other, so they’re as excited as kids on Christmas morning when they realize that Bertram sees and hears them. It seems they have unfinished business with the living, so they flood him with requests to help make things right. But they don’t get anywhere until Frank weasels his way around Bertram’s rock-hard heart. If Bertram will save Frank’s his widow from marrying a pompous do-gooder, Frank promises, he’ll make the other ghosts go away.

Bertram goes along with the plan with his usual ill humor – until he sees Frank’s widow.

Gwen (Téa Leoni) is a real prize – a beauty, sure, but also kind and accomplished. Leoni has always been an appealing physical comedienne who radiates quirky, approachable intelligence, a Renaissance actress in the mold of the great dames of Hollywood's Golden Age.

But there’s a touching vulnerability to Gwen that’s new for Leoni. I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between Gwen’s life and her own (Leoni’s husband is David Duchovny, whose “sex addiction” you’ve probably read about), though that may have nothing to do with her performance. Whatever the reason, Leoni ‘s tired eyes, tight mouth, and nervous hands give Gwen the look of a woman on the defensive, wary and weary. They also make it that much more of a pleasure when she starts to crack up at Bertram’s jokes, her reserve melting away.

In the end, Ghost Story is more about Bertram’s very-odd-couple relationship with Frank than it is about his kissless romance with Gwen – and it’s more about his changing relationship with the world around him than with either of those things.

Strewn along Bertram’s path to enlightenment are a couple of McNuggets of wisdom and some nice bits of comic relief. Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live is endearingly goofy as Bertram’s equivocating surgeon, and Gervais’ crack comic timing makes even his misanthropy funny, winning over the audience as he slowly wins Gwen. And Koepp and cinematographer Fred Murphy put a golden gloss on city landmarks like the Monkey Bar, the Bethesda Fountain’s angel, and the Metropolitan Museum, making Manhattan look like the ideal setting for a fairy-tale ending.

Now and then, the creak of a too-neat contrivance breaks the spell. But there’s more magic in this movie than in Igor, and a whole lot more respect for women than in The Women. Too bad those clunkers did better last weekend than this sweet little caper.

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