Ghost Town

Don’t let the stupid title prevent you from seeing this marvelous movie. Ghost Town is an unexpected treat–beautifully written, charming, funny, and poignant, with wonderful performances and, hey, even a message or two. No swearing, no sex, not even a car chase–though there are some way-too-speedy buses.

Movies about the redemption of awful men seem to be a popular theme this year. First there was the brilliant low-budget gem, The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins as a miserable economics professor who finds a new rhythm in life thanks to immigrant strangers. Then came Elegy, a surprisingly effective May-December romance with Ben Kingsley as a self-centered literary critic transformed by a wise young woman. (See reviews for both.) Now comes Ghost Town, a comic take on the essential need for kindness at all times, whether you’re alive or dead.

Dr. Bertram Pincus (Rick Gervais, TV’s The Office) is one of the most unpleasant men you’ll ever meet. Not only does the British transplant look like the most pasty, boring man in New York City, but he’s also selfish, rude and nasty. He finds no shame in admitting he hates people.

While under anesthesia for a mundane medical procedure, Pincus dies for seven minutes. In one of the most hilarious routines in recent memory, his surgeon (Kristen Wiig, TV’s Saturday Night Live), explains how he died, but didn’t die, and when he didn’t die he signed all these papers that he didn’t remember signing, so he can’t sue the hospital for its role in killing him, since he lived after all. Any survivor of HMO insanity will get tears from laughing so hard.

Being dead for a while has given Pincus the ability to see and hear people who have died for real but not yet gone to heaven. Thrilled to discover his rare talent, these dead people chase Pincus all over town to get him to help them settle their unfinished business with the living. In their small parts, all the dead people are terrific and it’s impossible not to see yourself or someone you know in their poignant tales. One of the best is an overly apologetic young man who died while naked–it seems you wander after death in whatever you had on when you died–played with subtle hilarity by relative unknown actor Jeff Hiller.

The most persistent dead person is James Herlihy (Greg Kinnear, Flash of Genius), sporting a jaunty tuxedo. Death has not diminished Herlihy’s obnoxious, pushy personality and he haunts Pincus like a sticky shadow. Herlihy promises to stop pestering Pincus if the dentist breaks up the romance between Herlihy’s widow, Gwen, (the lovely Téa Leon, You Kill Me), an Egyptologist who’s crazy about mummies, and her fiancé, a human rights attorney. Desperate to get rid of Herlihy, Pincus sets out to charm his way into Gwen’s life so he can ruin it.

As only a brilliantly subversive British comic can, Gervais makes his dense dentist so utterly human that as much as you want to smack him, you also want to hug him. There’s never a big Hallmark moment. Guided by a script that prefers nodding smiles to raucous guffaws, Gervais’ performance is touchingly true to life–for every three steps forward to likeability he takes, he falls two steps back. He’s never going to be a hero. He’s too average, too much like us–he’s real.

Being a wonderful movie, love enters the picture and is soon followed by all kinds of complications both predictable and unpredictable. The end result is one of the best movies of the year. That’s a surprising feat, because director/co-writer David Koepp (Secret Window) is known mostly for writing big loud movies (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War of the Worlds and Spider-Man).. What a treat it is to see such a filmmaker graduate from blockbusters to a small, sweetly funny story. Don’t miss it.

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