Here's to diminished expectations. Based solely on the generally sucky TV ads, Ghost Town looked like a pretty obvious stinker with a goofy, hackneyed premise straight out of the 1940s. So what a pleasant surprise that the picture's a shiny little gem, a sharply funny and very modern spin on timeworn supernatural comedies — think Topper and Heaven Can Wait — that still haunt basic cable.
The shock is greater when you consider it was made by David Koepp, a guy more famous for working on megabudget action flicks than for making tender and perceptive comedies. In fact, Koepp's fingerprints smeared the latest and lackluster Indiana Jones sequel script — and that's the sort of thing that doesn't fill one with confidence when grabbing some popcorn and taking an aisle seat for Ghost Town. Yet Koepp, who wrote and directed this, shows uncommon grace, a dandy comedic touch and a smooth hand with actors, beginning with his leading man.
As misanthropic dentist Bertram Pincus, the brilliant Ricky Gervais is allowed to exercise his singular gift for petty churlishness, a bite that lifts the movie miles above the standard studio fare. Bertram is a callow, fussy little shit, refusing to hold elevator doors, shunning eye contact, and recoiling at the most basic inquiries on a hospital questionnaire, as he checks in for a minor but embarrassing surgery. He wakes to find the staff lawyer and his ditzy, tanned-in-a-can-young surgeon (SNL's gawky marvel Kristen Wiig) informing him that he died (technically) on the table for seven minutes, though he signed a release form and therefore can't sue them. The tidbit doesn't sit well with him, nor does the fact he can suddenly see dead people, and no, he doesn't spot Bruce Willis, but he does see a smarmy Greg Kinnear.
Turns out these sad spirits are still hanging around Manhattan to wrap up unresolved personal business. Kinnear's Frank was a philandering husband while alive, but now he wants to look after his widow (Tea Leoni) from beyond, and he enlists Bertram to break up her impending marriage to a twit. He does just that, if only to lose the annoying spook, but sooner than you can say "Capra," he falls for the dame — understandably, since Leoni has never been more winning. The end result is predictable, but the style with which Koepp pulls it off is astounding. The film moves from slapstick to poignant with aplomb and there are but a few lulls. There's a wit, soul and warmth that reminds us why we treasure silly comedies like this.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.