September 18, 2008

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Ghost Town (PG-13)
A shmucky dentist suddenly gains the ability to talk to dead people in Ghost Town, a bewildering comedy starring Ricky Gervais.

Bertram Pincus (Gervais) is some combination of shy and socially inept. As a result, he comes off as a jerk to all the people he ignores, avoids or declines to hold the elevator for during the course of his very ordered, very quiet, very human-contact-free life (while, as a dentist, he does have patients, he does his best to keep from having to talk to or listen to them). He’s even a bit fussy with the staff at the hospital putting him under for a relatively minor medical procedure. (You’d think that, just as you try to avoid angering the waiter before he brings you your food, you’d try not to aggravate the people who will have free access to your body while you’re unconscious.) When he leaves the hospital, though, his aggravations get greater — suddenly, not only are an inordinate amount of people noticing him, they’re following Bertram. Following him to his apartment, his dental practice, the bar. More disturbingly, it seems he’s the only one who can see these people.

That’s because, as the tuxedo-wearing Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) tells Bertram, they’re dead. And it turns out Bertram was a little bit dead during his procedure. So now he can see all the ghosts roaming the streets of New York City, unable to move on because they have unfinished business with loved ones. Bertram, naturally, has no interest in getting involved but Frank tells him that if Bertram finishes his unfinished business, Frank can get the others to go away. It seems that Frank, who was a philandering jerk in life, is now worried that his widow Gwen (Téa Leoni), who coincidentally lives in Bertram’s building, is about to marry another jerk. His plan: get Bertram to stop the wedding. Bertram’s plan: to do this by presenting himself as a possible alternative to her fiancé — no easy task considering Bertram’s small talk is about the same as David Brent’s, Gervais’ character on the BBC version of The Office.

And awkward conversation is really what this movie does best. I could watch Ricky Gervais making dentist jokes all day. And, to her credit, Leoni’s scenes of geekiness — her character is an anthropologist — are pretty good as well. I’d argue that, during these rare scenes, she and Gervais have something approaching chemistry. Even Gervais and Kinnear have OK chemistry — they have the antagonistic but cooperative relationship of buddy movies everywhere. Some of these scenes feature funny lines, funny lines made even funnier by Gervais line reading.

What’s baffling about this movie is that despite this, Ghost Town isn’t funny. It has funny bits, it maybe made me, well, not chuckle, but do that nose-sniff thing that is sort of like an aborted attempt at a chuckle. An early scene of Bertram choking down the diuretic he has to drink before his hospital visit had good lines delivered well — oh, good, there’s more left, Bertram mumbles after he takes his first gag-accompanied swig of the substance that looks like spoiled milk — but I didn’t laugh. It was funny in theory but for whatever reason not funny in actuality.

The whole movie is that way. What should have been jokey but entertaining sitcom-level humor just feels harsh and ill-timed. Like an electrical gadget without batteries, the movie looked promising but it just couldn’t turn on. C

Rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual humor and drug reference. Directed by David Koepp and written by Koepp and John Kamps, Ghost Town is an hour and 43 minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Pictures. It will open on Sept. 19