Bertram Pincus (Gervais) is a misanthrope. His chosen profession is dentistry – ideal for cramming gauze or soft molds into the mouths of humans who would otherwise irritate him with attempts at the pleasantries, the chit-chats, even heartfelt stabs at connection so common to humans and their mouths. Pincus is a shit for a reason – there’s always a reason – and he’s the first one to admit that it’s a boring, ordinary story. But then something extraordinary happens to him: While under general anesthesia for a colonoscopy, he dies on the surgical table for seven minutes (in fact, just under
seven minutes, a litigation-wary paper-pusher at the hospital enthuses). Upon resuscitation, Pincus discovers he can see dead people. But shaking hands with the reaper doesn’t make him any nicer; he gets even worse, actually, and is cruelly contemptuous of all the stuck-in-limbo souls who beg him to tidy up for them their loose ends. (I won’t spoil it, but the film has a neat twist on the plight of stymied ghosts.) Still, newly dead Frank Herlihy (Kinnear, perfectly cast as one part sunny, one part slime) is persistent, and he convinces Pincus to take up his cause, which is to steer Frank’s widow, Gwen (Leoni), away from a bad love match. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a screenwriter certified in the School of Third-Act Redemption, to see where this is going: Pincus will fall for Gwen and in the process regain some kernel of humanity long buried under his sneer and silly DDS mock-turtleneck smock. Sounds a little bit cookie-cutter, but if you were going for cookie-cutter, you wouldn’t have hired pasty-faced Gervais, who’s best known for his brilliant bumbling idiocy in British TV’s The Office
. At first he seems an ill fit for leading man in a romantic comedy. Drawing from those previous roles, Gervais still plays a jerk, and he still lets loose with his astonishingly daft/deft monologues that stop and start in the most awkward, side-splitting of ways. But he’s also found a way to magnify the just-teased vulnerabilities of those earlier parts to craft a character that is both loathsome and endearing – a shit, sure, but with some reason and, yes, the faint hope of future redemption. Director and co-writer (with John Kamps) Koepp is also a surprise; he’s best known as the go-to screenwriter of movies of frenzy and bombast but very little quiet space, such as Panic Room
and War of the Worlds
and the most recent Indiana Jones
. But Ghost Town
is perfectly content to burrow into those quiet spaces, where boring, ordinary adults live and fitfully try to love again. It’s a slow-burn kind of picture that doesn’t bend over backward to ingratiate itself and, in the process, quite surprisingly, does just that. It’s sweet and old-fashioned, a little bit hokey, its pacing a little bit pokey. But by the time this imperfect little film wends its way to one of the most winning exit lines I’ve heard in a long time, it’s turned into something, well, perfectly lovely.