FILM REVIEW: Ghost Town

12A • 102 mins • 24 October

Director: David Koepp

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Alan Ruck, Kristen Wiig, Aasif Mandvi

Rating:

It’s not every American comedy that can claim to mash up a Dickens theme with an Oscar-scooping Patrick Swayze ‘80s cheese-o-rama, but David Koepp’s latest turn behind the camera just about pulls it off.

Spirits and the notion of an afterworld are a pervading influence on Koepp’s directing work. He’s already brought us Stir of Echoes, which saw Kevin Bacon obsessed with the beyond, and now Ricky Gervais has his own trouble with otherworldly types. As Bertram Pincus, a withdrawn, selfish, determinedly anti-social dentist, he’s a neurotic bundle of loathing and grumpiness. He likes his job because his patients’ mouths are usually filled with instruments, so they can’t talk to him – and woe betide you if you ask him for help. He’s basically Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, and, like Scrooge, he’s suddenly seeing ghosts (though Dickens never imagined his miser getting his spiritual sight thanks to briefly dying while getting a colonoscopy).

Greg Kinnear’s Frank feels his wrath, but then Frank doesn’t really care what Pincus thinks or wants – Frank’s dead. A womanising lothario, he really wants Pincus to stop his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying again (enter the Swayze-as-a-spook theme, with the recently dead trying to contact the living). While Pincus initially refuses point blank to assist, he ends up warming to Gwen and agreeing to go along with the idea, if only so he can convince her that he’s actually the man she should be in love with.

Gervais is one of the saving graces of the film. While the man behind The Office and Extras really only has the one style, he uses it to perfection here, as Pincus is a walking comedy generator. It’s a good thing too, because the rest of the film is built on the base of the sort of bog-standard romantic comedy that you’ve seen many times before. Fortunately for us, Koepp and co-writer John Kamps try their hardest to invoke a Seinfeld-alike, “no hugging, no learning” ethos. While there is a fairly typical resolution, and Pincus ends up going through the motions, you never get the feeling that he’s completely healed and will be a perfectly nice man once he’s out the other side of the plot wringer. Plus, rather than blurting out reasons for why he’s so abrasive, Gervais is given some subtle character building moments and a real sense of personal pain behind his scowl.

There’s able work from Kinnear too, who brings plenty of spark to his role, whether it’s finely-tuned banter with Gervais or fending off the myriad of other dead souls who are desperate for Pincus’s assistance. And while he only gets what amounts to an extended cameo, watch out for a nicely sympathetic turn from Alan Ruck. The major weak link here is Leoni, who never really gets enough to do and rarely rises above the material. You never start to think that she could so much as tolerate Gervais’s grouchy dentist, let alone start to love him.

Koepp’s films to date have been darker dramas, so it’s even more impressive to see how nimbly he turns his hand to comedy – albeit with a quietly sad heart beating underneath. And it’s clear he’s worked with Gervais to help shape the character, which makes Ghost Town rise above expectations, even though it never quite shatters the genre mould.

James White