Sunday, 16 June 2024

Biting wit of Ricky Gervais lifts 'Ghost Town'

GHOST TOWN (Rated PG-13)


Tempting though it may be to label “Ghost Town” a romantic comedy, the designation doesn’t seem to fit comfortably, particularly when the lead character is a curmudgeon nearly incapable of redemption, let alone romantic conquest. But if you want to take a cynical, antisocial snob and overall self-consumed loner and turn him into something almost barely tolerable, then it helps that he has a British accent.


Well, the appeal is not so much the manner of speech, but British comedic actor Ricky Gervais, who became famous for playing the much-despised office manager in the BBC Series “The Office,” has a spot-on delivery for barbs and snide witticisms.


Making his first star turn in film, Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a Manhattan dentist with the least friendly bedside manner. He’s known to stuff more cotton into a patient’s mouth, mainly to silence incessant chatter he wishes to avoid. Office parties are anathema to him, as he makes lame excuses to his colleague (Aasif Mandvi), and then slips out the door to shun interaction with the lowly office staff. Presumably, the good doctor is in a hurry to retreat to his nice apartment, where he slips into pajamas and works on crossword puzzles neatly arranged on a table. Dr. Pincus’ ordered life, though, is rudely interrupted in the wake of a near-death experience.


At the beginning of the film, Bertram checks into the hospital for a routine medical procedure, only to later learn from his surgeon (Kristen Wiig) that he was clinically dead for a period of seven minutes.


The funniest thing about his visit to the hospital was the way Dr. Pincus would refuse to answer some of the more standard questions posed by a nurse seeking to fill out lengthy personal medical history forms.


As for the not-so-funny business of short-term death, Bertram soon learns that he has acquired an annoying ability to see ghosts. Even worse, these undead spirits desperately want something from him, since they are unable to reveal themselves to other human beings.


The most irritating ghost of them all is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a handsome, debonair, tuxedo-wearing unfaithful husband who, after losing his life in a freak accident, decides to do the right thing by his widowed wife, Gwen (Tea Leoni).


Pushy and obnoxious, Frank pesters Bertram into helping him break-up Gwen’s impending marriage to Richard (Billy Campbell), a do-gooder lawyer thought to be a gold-digger anxious to get his hands on Gwen’s fortune. Unfortunately, Gwen lives in the same building as Dr. Pincus, and has often been treated rudely by the dentist, who won’t let her in the elevator, snubs her in hallways or steals her cabs. As ridiculous as it sounds, Frank thinks Bertram can somehow tempt Gwen away from her fiancé.


To get Bertram to do his bidding, Frank threatens to let all the other pesky poltergeists, still lingering on earth for some unfinished business, know that the dentist is able to see dead people. Soon enough, the waiting room at his dental office is full of people seeking something other than routine teeth cleanings.


Naturally, there are funny situations where Bertram is caught talking to the persistent spirits that no living being can see. The humor is reminiscent of the old “Topper” TV series in which a staid banker had to cope with the demands of his undead houseguests.


The difficult part of accepting “Ghost Town” as a romantic comedy is that Bertram is not even remotely close to a romantic character. While the leading man doesn’t have to look like Cary Grant, the pudgy, awkward and perpetually cranky Dr. Pincus doesn’t fit the mold for the conventional candidate.


Picking Ricky Gervais to work against type may be a bold move, but he’s too unlikely to be coached by a suave character like Greg Kinnear to step into the breach so as to sweep a gorgeous babe like Tea Leoni off her feet. And yet, there’s an odd, if uncomfortable, chemistry between the British crank and the American beauty.


“Ghost Town” may not fully succeed as a romantic comedy, but it has plenty of laughs that come almost exclusively from the offbeat, unorthodox performance of Ricky Gervais.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


Speaking of guys who should be romantic leading men, Hugh Jackman stars in the sexy suspense film “Deception” being released on DVD and Blu-ray.


He’s not exactly the good guy this time around, considering that he’s playing a slick lawyer friend to Ewan McGregor’s naïve accountant. Jackman lures his buddy into an elite and clandestine sex club known as “The List.” The mild-mannered fool becomes enamored with this new lifestyle, but soon becomes the prime suspect in a woman’s disappearance and a multi-million dollar heist. Let the fun begin.


By the way, I know next to nothing about this Blu-ray technology, except to know that these types of discs always cost more money. However, the studios are pushing this high-tech stuff more and more.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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