Spooky Tooth

Having dipped his toe with punchy cameos in the likes of For Your Consideration and Night At The Museum, television’s favourite creep Ricky Gervais makes his Hollywood debut as a lead in the spiky but safely pasteurised studio comedy Ghost Town.

Gervais plays the delightfully named Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic, uptight dentist (is there any other kind in movies?) who suffers through life desperate to avoid any human contact. Bertram’s knotted bowels bring him to hospital for an operation, where, in a very funny scene, his doctor (Kristen Wiig) explains he died on the operating table for seven minutes. Now, it seems, he can see and speak to ghosts, stuck in the middle of this world and the next.

The most desperate spirit he meets is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a rich Manhattan executive who recently died in an accident. Frank was having an affair with his yoga instructor, but now deeply regrets it and wants to communicate this remorse to his widow, Egyptologist Gwen (Tea Leoni). Gervais doesn’t want to help Frank, or anyone else, he just wants to go back to his beloved drills. But predictably, lonely Bertram contrives to fall in love with gentle Gwen, their relationship sparking over a desiccated mummy with gingivitis in the depths of the city museum.

Although the film could hardly have taken any other direction, once the romance starts any ruffles in Ghost Town are firmly ironed down. Gervais is supposed to be crass, he’s meant to be unsure of himself, twitchy, sweaty and inappropriate. But we are asked to grow to like him, root for him even, so eventually he just stops being nasty and mean and starts being funny and charming. I liked it better when he was horrible because Gervais is better at that. This crucial conversion happens in a rush of broad, neutered set-ups and ordinary jokes. So much time is spent establishing Pincus as a grumpy sad case, that we never spend enough time with him as a fully realised character.

In his trudge through the plot, the pressing demands of New York’s legion of unsettled ghosts are more or less forgotten while Kinnear’s even cuter problem takes precedence. The various resolutions, when they arrive, come in a flood of twinkling lights and wistful smiles, heavily laden with corn syrup.

Gervais plays Bertram as another extension of himself, the same tics and reflexes as David Brent and the same stammering confusion as Andy Millman in Extras: a semi-comprehensible flood of faux pas and panicked smiles. Cast to type, I would prefer to have seen him play the duplicitous yuppie millionaire and the dashing Kinnear take on an isolated loner, lost in sadness. Leoni, as the tightly-wound smart girl, is the thread that binds the two leads and plays a natural, self-dependent woman made all the more attractive by her smarts and determination.

Despite its odd tone and flagging pace, Ghost Town tries to channel the essence of the Golden Age screwball comedies but the potential for something beyond the safe and pre-tested fades early and never recovers.

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