Saturday night I saw the film “Ghost Town,” with Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, and Tea Leoni. Before I get to the review, I should probably say that I’m a huge fan of Ricky Gervais, who has been brilliant in everything I’ve seen of him. But I was curious to see how he would fare without Stephen Merchant or Karl Pilkington around. And at first glance, Gervais seems out of place in a standard Hollywood romantic comedy.
The plot is a subtle twist on a predictable Hollywood formula: A misanthropic dentist, Bertram Pincus, played by Gervais, dies during a routine medical procedure and is brought back to life after seven minutes. On leaving the hospital, he discovers that he can see dead people, all of whom want something from him, in much the same way that the ghosts in “The Sixth Sense” needed Haley Joel Osment to help them reach some kind of closure. But here it’s played for laughs, and Gervais quickly finds himself being hounded by crowds of ghosts, all of whom want him to fix things they left unfinished.
Enter Greg Kinnear, a self-absorbed philanderer whose widow is engaged to be married. He strikes a deal with Pincus: break up the engagement, and he’ll keep the needy ghosts away. In a development you can see a mile away, Pincus falls for the widow, and the rest of the film covers his awkward attempts to woo the widow and keep his bargain with Kinnear’s character. I don’t need to tell you how it ends. As I said, the script follows a rather old formula, but that’s not really what we came to see.
The film is Gervais’s to carry, and he does so brilliantly. If you’re familiar with his radio personality (which one presumes is close to his “real” personality), you’ll be surprised, as I was, at how well he portrays such a damaged and beaten character. In other hands, Pincus would be difficult to like and a rather unpleasant character. But Gervais makes him human, someone who doesn’t so much hate other people as fear them because he is afraid of feeling pain (ironic in a dentist). And of course, his comedic timing is impeccable. His conversation with a rather shallow and self-absorbed surgeon about his dying “just a little bit” is hilarious. The other actors in the film seem more like props in Gervais’s one-man show, with the exception of Kinnear, who, like Gervais, makes something out of an otherwise unsympathetic character.
Is it a great film? No, but it is funny, and it’s worth seeing the beginning of what I suspect will be a long career for Gervais in Hollywood.