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Laugh at screwball comedy? I nearly died of boredom

By Damon Smith

Published 24/10/2008

Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a successful but misanthropic New York dentist who likes his job because 90 per cent of the people he meets have their mouths shoved full of cotton wool.
Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a successful but misanthropic New York dentist who likes his job because 90 per cent of the people he meets have their mouths shoved full of cotton wool.

Ricky Gervais graduates to Hollywood leading man in David Koepp’s supernatural comedy about a curmudgeon who discovers that he can see dead people on the streets of Manhattan.

Unfortunately, the award-winning star of The Office and Extras simply doesn’t have the charisma to carry an entire film, falling back on his usual repertoire of comic tics and mumbled asides.

Screenwriters Koepp and John Kamps rely on Gervais’ unsympathetic misanthrope for the majority of the laughs — a risk that doesn’t pay off, resulting in uncomfortable longueurs when every punchline falls flat.

Saturday Night Live regular Kristen Wiig is a blessed relief as a litigation-shy surgeon who tries to cover up an unfortunate turn of events on the operating table.

“You died ... a little bit,” she eventually confesses to Gervais’s dumbfounded patient. “Everybody dies,” she adds soothingly.

“Yeah, usually at the end of their life,” he replies, “and only the once.”

There’s every chance that audiences could die of boredom well before the end of Koepp’s film and its emotionally manipulative, mawkish denouement which recalls Scrooge’s transformation in A Christmas Carol. Bah humbug, indeed.

During a routine colonoscopy, middle-aged British dentist Bertram Pincus (Gervais) reacts badly to the anaesthetic. His heart stops beating, but thankfully the hospital staff revive the patient on the operating table.

Bertram wakes to discover he can now see and hear the spirits of the recently departed, all of whom are stuck in limbo.

Tormented by one particular soul, Frank Herlihy (Kinnear), Bertram agrees to speak to the dead man’s widow Gwen (Leoni) in the hope this will facilitate Frank’s transition to the other side.

Instead, Bertram unexpectedly feels an emotional connection to Gwen, and he wrestles with a growing attraction.

Ghost Town could have been a quirky and charming romantic comedy with a different leading man.

Regrettably, with Gervais on board, the project becomes a limp one-man show, with hardly any room for Kinnear or Leoni to breathe life into their underwritten protagonists.

Computer-generated special effects are used sparingly to allow ghosts to walk through solid objects, but occasionally extras forget that they aren’t supposed to be able to see or hear the spirits.

In a bar scene, for example, patrons clearly turn around when they hear a ghost argument.

Sexual chemistry between Gervais and Leoni is completely inert, rendering Bertram’s romantic overtures pathetic. He’s certainly no credible match for Gwen’s human rights lawyer fiancee, played with suavity and charm by Billy Campbell.

When Frank attempts to sabotage the fledgling relationship by feeding Bertram bogus details about a dream that only Gwen would know, the dentist is apoplectic.

“You lied, why did you do that?” he rages.

“Because you’re a heartless son of a bitch who only cares about himself — and she’s already had one of those.”

We wholeheartedly agree.

(12A, 102 mins)

Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni

Belfast Telegraph

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