A shortish middle-aged dentist with a bowel problem as leading man? Well, however unlikely it may seem, some wonderfully fresh comic writing and some carefully understated performances – particularly from Ricky Gervais – make the idea work wonderfully in this light but very funny romantic comedy about unfinished business.
Gervais is Bertram Pincus, an anti-social man who would do just about anything to avoid being in the company of his fellow human beings. He loves dentistry because it’s the only job where people can’t talk to him. He lives alone. He barely speaks to his colleagues and actively avoids his neighbours. But after a small operation goes strangely wrong, he finds himself able to see – and communicate with – the dead, those thousands of lost souls who just want some way to find closure with loved ones still alive. Dr. Pincus is their only hope, and they harass him for attention and help. Pincus is not sure what to do about his sudden popularity in the ghost community until recently deceased Frank (Greg Kinnear) offers him a deal: help stop Frank’s wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying nice-guy Richard (Billy Campbell) and the ghostly crowds will go. Pincus accepts, but then finds out that Gwen is a neighbour – a woman he has managed to annoy for more than a year. Finding a way to get to know her is not going to be easy.
Making the leap from quirky British television comedy (The Office, Extras) to mainstream Hollywood rom-com is no easy feat – particularly given the smarmy arrogant nature of the typical Gervais character. But Director David Koepp (who also co-wrote the screenplay) cleverly keeps the comedian on the warm side of likeable – and makes sure that the only mocking he does is of himself. We – and the recently widowed Gwen – must like the awkward Pincus for this film to work, and indeed we do – forgiving him his bad manners and resentment of the world, because we can feel something sensitive underneath. Tea Leoni is honest and delightful too in her portrayal of the widow Gwen, gracefully putting up with and then enjoying the company of her dentist neighbour.
Although there’s a clear formula at work, with the comedy steadily giving way to the romance, and Pincus’ taciturn nature giving way to his essential goodness, Ghost Town is intelligently written and thoughtfully directed – some of the early scenes of Pincus dealing with hospital staff utterly hilarious.