‘Ghost Town’ no ‘Wonderful Life,’ but it’s spirited

“Ghost Town,” starring Ricky Gervais and Greg Kinnear, may have some unconvincing and contrived mome
Ricky Gervais plays dentist Bertram Pincus in "Ghost Town."
Ricky Gervais plays dentist Bertram Pincus in "Ghost Town."

One autumn day in Manhattan, a surly cad in a tuxedo is wiped out by a bus. He’s Frank Herlihy, and because he is played by headliner Greg Kinnear, you can safely predict we haven’t seen the last of Frank.

As you might also guess when you learn that the film is called “Ghost Town,” Frank shows up to haunt and pester a misanthropic dentist named Bertram Pincus, who suddenly starts to see ghosts after he is zapped by a near-lethal dose of anesthesia during a colonoscopy.

As we may have suspected all along, Manhattan is filled with the living dead, who, like the poor departed Frank, are looking for closure. Though he is a bit of a rake, Frank wants to steer his widow Gwen (Téa Leoni) away from another marriage with the wrong guy. Because Dr. Pincus is the only mortal who can see ghosts, he is the chosen emissary for what (surprise!) evolves into a romantic mission.

As fate would have it, Gwen, an Egyptian mummy specialist, is dwelling in Dr. Bert’s apartment building. Eager to get Ghost Frank off his back, the OCD dentist makes contact with Gwen. At first, she rebuffs this ungentlemanly neighbor, who no longer slams doors in his face. Then, in a turnabout that’s less than credible, Gwen finds the doc to be increasingly cute. They may be soul mates.

Enviable challenge

Clearly, writer-director David Koepp is out to fashion a warm Frank Capra comedy, this one featuring a cranky narcissist who will have to learn that “only a life helping others is worth living.” Given the record of Capra and other creators of screwball comedy like Howard Hawks, Koepp has an unenviable challenge.

’Ghost Town’

DIRECTED BY David Koepp

SCREENPLAY BY David Koepp and John Kamps

STARRING Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Téa Leoni, Dana Ivey, Aasif Mandvi and Kristen Wiig

RATED PG-13

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

The good news is that even if “Ghost Town” is no “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Bringing Up Baby,” it does serve up some edgy interludes and good-natured fun. While Gervais has the countenance of a clown, he does more with his character than play the buffoon. “We live alone, we die alone, we stay alone,” says Dr. Bert during one of his more melancholic moments. He’s not a nice guy; neither is Frank. The movie avoids Hallmark sentimentality by presenting them as nasty. It skirts clichés by presenting them to us as guys open to some kind of redemption.

I liked Leoni, who comes about as close as any modern actress to embodying that Capraesque heroine epitomized by Jean Arthur. (See “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”) You will appreciate a short stint by “SNL” regular Kristen Wiig, who plays a doctor. Aasif Mandvi has a critical role as a fellow dentist, an object of prejudice who turns out to be the voice of compassion.

“Ghost Town” may have some unconvincing and contrived moments, but for the most part it is a pleasant comic excursion accented by some pleasant jolts of reality and palatable bromides of wisdom.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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