Bertram Pincus. Who else but Ricky Gervais could do justice to a name like that? Bertram is a British dentist in New York. A bone fide misanthropist, you have to say he’s in the right profession (and the right city). Social interaction is kept to a bare minimum. If anyone does try to get too chatty he tells them to open wide and leaves them hanging. As movie dentists go – compared to Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man or Steve Martin in Little Shop Of Horrors – he’s an absolute sweetheart.
Bertram gets his comeuppance when he loses his vital signs for a few minutes during routine surgery. He is revived, and wouldn’t have been any the wiser except that when he wakes up he has a new and unlooked for skill set. He can see dead people.
The ghosts of New York are used to being ignored. The most reaction they usually get from the living is an involuntary sneeze. Bertram can see them and hear them too. Maybe he could help them settle their unfinished business and move on to the other world? True to form he’s not interested. But when Frank (Greg Kinnear) promises to get the rest of the spirits off his back if only he’ll save his widow Gwen (Téa Leoni) from marrying a jerk, Bertram figures it might be worth his trouble. He’s a little sweet on Gwen himself.
Since the phenomenal success of The Office and Extras, Gervais has been biding his time movie-wise. He has accepted supporting roles in projects with friends and worked with people he admires – Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum; Christopher Guest in For Your Consideration; and Robert De Niro in Stardust – but turned down bigger parts that didn’t seem right for him. (He also has a couple of projects in production that he has scripted and, in one case, directed, himself.)
The biggest difference would be Bertram, whose misanthropy makes him an easy fit for Gervais. He’s a Scrooge-like figure, and while it’s easy enough to imagine Bill Murray in the role, his English accent definitely helps.
Refreshingly, the script by John Kamps (Zathura) and director David Koepp (a current Spielberg favourite, who wrote Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and War of the Worlds, among others) avoids most of the clichés that have made romantic comedies so tedious lately. They avoid the meet-cute, for example, by deferring the meeting until Gwen has already made up her mind about the taxi-stealing, lift-snatching asshole who lives in her apartment building.
Similarly, we’re primed to believe that her new fiancé will be as awful as her dead husband says he is. But we’re in for a surprise. If anything, he’s too perfect. Frank is the real jerk. Not only that, but the attraction between Bertram and Gwen scarcely reaches first base before the final fade-out.
What I like about the movie – aside from Ricky’s consistently funny put-downs of the infuriating citizens of New York, alive and dead – is how we sense this unlikely love story developing. Bertram may be fighting out of his weight-class sexually speaking, but we see that he impresses Gwen with his intelligence and his frankly inappropriate (ie British) sense of humour. Ghost Town is surely the first rom-com to find romance in mummified corpses, dental forensics and a sensitive gag reflex.Téa Leoni helps a lot. With her infectiously throaty laugh, it’s easy to believe that she enjoys Bertram’s cantankerous company.
Granted, the movie takes a predictably sentimental turn towards the end – but even then it has at least one gloriously black sideswipe up its sleeve. In the end, it’s certainly not on a par with RG’s TV work, but Ghost Town is a smart first step, injecting welcome truculence into a typically polished Hollywood production.
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