Ghost Town: Koepp’s Supernatural Romantic Fable, Starring Ricky Gervaise

David Koepp’s whimsically supernatural romantic fable, Ghost Town, combines elements of such classics as “Topper,” “Blithe Spirit,” “Heaven Can Wait,” and “Ghost,” yet impresses as an original work with its own quirky sensibility.
The film benefits from the charisma of British comedian-actor Ricky Gervais, who has established a strong reputation as star of the TV series “The Office.”

The film received its world premiere at the Toronto Film Fest and will be released by DreamWorks-Paramount September 19. With the right handling and marketing, it could emerge as a sleeper of the fall season, an endearing date film for adults.

A love poem for contemporary New York City, in the way that Woody Allen’s 1970s and 1980s films were, “Ghost Town” should put on the map David Koepp as a director. Up until now, he’s been better known as the screenwriter of such diverse fare as “Jurassic Park” for Spielberg, “Carlito’s Way” for De Palma, “Panic Room” for David Fincher and, most recently, Spielberg’s summer blockbuster “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

Koepp shows a tremendous progress as a director, compared to his previous features, the supernatural thriller “Stir of Echoes” and the suspenser “Secret Window,” based on Stephen King’s novella. “Ghost Town” is an edgy, offbeat comedy with plenty of charm, and morality too, but without the heavy-handed touch and preachy nature of such fables. Smoothly helmed and technically accomplished, the film integrates the special effects in a way that doesn’t call too much attention to themselves.

The filmmakers deserve credit for revolving their tale around a dentist, not the most popular profession around. The last time we saw a dentist as a protag was in Alan Rudolph’s sharply written “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” which was a rather somber melodrama about adultery.

Gervais plays Dr. Bertram Pincus, a big-city curmudgeon, a cynical snob and self-consumed loner who just wants to get away from the masses that surround him in Manhattan. Whether or not dentists like their patients is debatable and irrelevant. What does matter is that the nature of the work is such that they have good reason not to socialize with them while they’re drilling. Indeed, initially, Dr. Pincus takes full advantage of his profession’s “natural” conditions.

But Pincus is about to have a comeuppance, when his entire world-view is punctured in the wake of a near-death experience. Things go awry, when during Pincus’ routine colonoscopy, his life is turned upside down in unimaginable, unpredictable ways.

After the accident, Pincus can and does see dead people; he literally can’t avoid them no matter where he goes. This means he has no choice but to interact with these persistent spirits, an experience which opens him up to an even more frightening realization. The only way he’s going to get rid of his pesky poltergeists is by helping them, which is the definition of punishment for a misanthrope like him.

At first, Pincus’s sole motivation in helping the ghost of Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) break up the marriage of his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni), is simply the promise that if he does so, Frank will make all the ghosts go away.

Pincus’s new, haunted life is changed by one fateful encounter with one harassing ghost, that of Frank, once a handsome debonair but unfaithful husband who, after losing his life, now hope to finally do the right thing by his widowed wife. Aggressive and obnoxious, he uses every tactic in his pushy New York attitude to pester Pincus into helping him.

You could say that Frank is a conflicted ghost, torn by the dilemma of a man who wants to be released from his earthly bonds and in the process becomes sort of a spectral Cyrano to Pincus, coaching him and telling him what to tell and how to behave with his ex-wife, Gwen.

Equally creatively constructed is Gwen, the brilliant, mummy-obsessed archeologist, who is not above dissecting her treasured figure in detail and explaining in a hilarious monologue his anatomy down to the size of his penis and why it had to be contained in a large box!

Predictably, before long, Pincus falls in love with Gwen and begins dating her, and we get a sense of a middle-aged man who has never been really smitten by a woman. Will he tell her the truth, when the time comes, and how will he do it

The ensuing yarn unfolds as a moral journey of an anti-social man in serious need of a wake-up call and a lesson in humanity and humility. The gradual changes of his persona are reflected in the changing relationship with his Indian dentist colleague, Dr. Prashar (Aasif Mandvi), an upbeat, optimistic fellow whom he first despises.

Pincus’s interpersonal communication problems shape the story into a fable-like structure, taking it from being just a comic romp through a spirit-filled New York to the tale of a man’s inner transformation through his paranormal encounters.

The scenario is based on the idea that the worst thing that can happen to a “dedicated loner” such as Dr. Pincus is to be forced to interact with people, and people that have access to him anywhere, at any time. Refreshingly, the comedy is not about special effects or supernatural gags, but about the relationships between Pincus, Frank, and Frank’s ex-wife and the awkward situations the trio find themselves in.

Koepp has handled the eerie and occult before, but he has not done a sophisticated comedy in which witty dialogue is just as important as plot or visual effects, which are inventive and seamless.

Gervais’s first role as a comedic leading man matches his eccentric sensibility and expert skills like a silk glove. He dominates the screen in each and every scene he is in (which is most of the time) with a compelling and likable performance even when his character is engaged in awkward and ridiculous situations.

For once, the gifted, long-legged Leoni gets a role that merits her inner and outer elegance and sharp intelligence. Born to be a classic screwball comedienne, in the mold of Carol Lombard or Jean Arthur, Leoni has been underused in “Spanglish,” “Fun With Dick and Jane,” and “You Kill Me,” but here, gets to play a crucial role of the Egyptologist and femme fatale, obsessed with dead people from ancient time, who’s almost given up on finding love in the present.

New Yorkers will get a kick out of seeing their beloved Manhattan conceived as a “ghost town,” teeming with invisible ghosts that normally can’t be seen by the living, and it’s these needy ghosts that steer Pincus back into facing head-on and interacting with the “real” world.

Cast

Bertram Pincus – Ricky Gervais
Frank Herlihy – Greg Kinnear
Gwen – Tea Leoni
Marjorie – Dana Ivey
Dr. Prashar – Aasif Mandvi

Credits

A Paramount release of a DreamWorks and Spyglass Entertainment presentation of a Pariah production.
Produced by Gavin Polone.
Executive producers: Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Ezra Swerdlow.
Directed by David Koepp.
Screenplay, Koepp, John Kamps.
Camera (color), Fred Murphy; editor, Sam Seig; music, Geoff Zanelli; production designer, Howard Cummings; art director, Nicholas Lundy; set decorator, Debra Schutt; costume designer, Sarah Edwards; sound (Dolby 5.1), Robert Hein, Michael Barry, James J. Sabat, David Wahnon; casting, Pat McCorkle, John Papsidera.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 101 Minutes