The fun of Ghost Town starts with the title and doesn't end until the final line. In fact, the ending, in its own milder way, is as perfect as "nobody's perfect" in Some Like It Hot. In this movie, New York City is the ghost town, and not because everyone has left it, as in I Am Legend. Without even knowing it, surviving friends and loved ones, because of their unresolved emotions, keep a horde of dead Manhattanites tethered to Earth.
As the dentist who discovers he can converse with the dead, Ricky Gervais gives the film a rich, bittersweet center. The creator-star of the original BBC version of The Office and the HBO series Extras, Gervais has long been the master of inappropriate behavior. In Gervais' brand of comedy, men and women (OK, mostly men) don't merely act badly, they don't know how to act at all. The modest triumph of Ghost Town is that director David Koepp and this talented Brit channel three discordant sources of great American comedy - faith, mopiness and misanthropy - and make them harmonize.
After Dr. Bertram Pincus (Gervais) dies for seven minutes during a routine colonoscopy, he sees (and hears and talks to) dead people. As the playful spin in the ad line puts it, "They annoy him." In Gervais' tart-tender characterization, Pincus is a ghost of a man even before he gets to know real ghosts. Convinced that he's fated to be a loner (and temperamentally suited to it, too), he enjoys doing dental work because he can always shove something in his patients' mouths to prevent them from talking.
The ghost population doubles his odds for discomfort. Only the persuasive talents of a specter named Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) and the uncommon charm and beauty of Herlihy's widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni), prod him to get involved in other people's lives. He learns that fellowship keeps his life from dribbling away into minor habits and irritations.
The movie has a micro-macro way of getting to you. Koepp, who co-wrote the film with John Kamps, tickles you into the mindset of a fellow who always sweats the small stuff and is maddeningly right about the little disturbances of man. The doctor who performs Pincus' colonoscopy, played to impervious perfection by Saturday Night Live's queen of deadpan, Kristen Wiig, proves more concerned with her artificial tan than with his colon. It's like a satirical revue sketch, yet it fits easily into this kinder, gentler movie.
As soon as Pincus gets in the same room as Gwen and her magnificent storybook Great Dane, the film lifts off to an unexpected plateau; Pincus can suddenly feel and respond to friendship and love. Herlihy wants Pincus to prevent Gwen from marrying Richard (Billy Campbell), a human-rights lawyer. Herlihy believes Gwen's new fiance must be flawed. Why else would Herlihy be stuck haunting Earth? Let's just say this movie's moral is the opposite of Love Story's: In Ghost Town, love means having to say you're sorry.
Yet there's nothing preachy about Koepp's comedy. Pincus eventually comprehends that selfishness is self-defeating. Gwen provides the push he needs to open his eyes and look around. Before Herlihy deputized the people-hating dentist to rescue her, Gwen was just another neighbor to be avoided, subject to all of Pincus' discourtesy, including bad elevator manners. Now he sees her in the round as a vibrant, intelligent woman whose imperfections make her more appealing.
Leoni has rarely been more relaxed or attractive than she is in Ghost Town. Koepp's gracious, unsmug tone allows her to use her crack timing without overt calculation. She's an Egyptologist who looks supernaturally smart and daffy when she examines a mummy. Leoni can play self-consciousness to the hilt. Here she gets the chance to put together fetching combinations of self-consciousness and spontaneity. Leoni's sheer directness can be seductive. It's an ideal trait for an actress playing Gwen, whose frankness connects her to Pincus' sometimes obnoxious but often on-the-nose humor. The dentist knows he must be absolutely straight with her to win her, but he feels he can't tell her that he's talking to her dead husband. And Herlihy is no Cyrano, anyway.
The astonishingly versatile Kinnear proves note-perfect as a huckster who slowly rids himself of slime. He understands how Herlihy uses his gift of gab and his easy charm to insinuate his way into people's hearts, perhaps more deeply than he knows. (Kinnear is having quite a year; he's also terrific in next month's Flash of Genius.) His scenes with Gervais are inspired duets for fast talkers. Kinnear gives Frank a slick upscale patter. It complements what Gervais does as Pincus, whose derisive stream of consciousness can stymie the most practiced persuader. Because of Gervais' intimate, nuanced comic manner, we believe we're listening in on Pincus' inner voice even when he talks to other people, living or dead.
The movie brings out the adult allure of Manhattan, in its culture (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the literary walk at Central Park) and diversity (The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi imbues the role of Pincus' dental partner with an affable bemusement). Koepp and cinematographer Fred Murphy create images that stay with you, such as a World War II nurse looking plaintively at Pincus before he knows she's a ghost. (The striking actress is Betty Gilpin.) This movie has more sweetness and life in it than any of the year's broader comedies so far. It's a delightful, affecting fantasy about souls lost and found.
(Dreamworks/Paramount) Starring Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Billy Campbell, Kristen Wiig. Directed by David Koepp. PG-13 for some strong language, sexual references and drug references. Time 103 minutes.