Ghost Town follows the tradition of American film comedy
The town of the title is New York City, and its not entirely invisible population of ghosts consists mostly of sad, kindly souls, more haunted by themselves than almost anything else. And it’s not a ghost town in the customary sense—quite the opposite, in fact.
Indeed, the film is a comedy, and its Manhattan is the pleasant, lively place we’ve seen in sitcoms and Woody Allen movies, and—far from being desolate or abandoned—it also has a large shadow population of mostly friendly ghosts, mingling with (but not often seen by) the living multitudes.
The joke—and the reverse-spin metaphor—in that title is just one indication of what is most striking about this smart, darkly wry movie. As a fanciful combination of romantic comedy and ghost story, it treads lightly past the twin obstacles of sentimentality and sententiousness, dancing around its tricky premises with delicacy and charm, and a certain surprising elegance.
An amusingly convoluted romantic triangle is the central story element, but whatever the risks and merits of its plotting, the greatest appeals of Ghost Town reside in the ensemble work of its central players: Ricky Gervais, Téa Leoni and Greg Kinnear. Three lively and unexpectedly quirky characterizations emerge in the course of the story’s twists and turns.
For the record, Gervais is Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic and resolutely solitary dentist. Through a complicated series of accidents, Pincus finds himself obliged to help the ghost of Frank Herlihy (Kinnear), who wants to prevent his widow Gwen (Leoni) from marrying another man. Complications, romantic and otherwise, ensue—some predictably, some not.
Gervais and Kinnear both play skillfully against type—the one uncovering some ditzy charm beneath the brash disdain, the other revealing deviousness and self-doubt beneath a suave exterior. Leoni gives a charmingly persuasive account of Gwen’s mixture of intelligence and fallibility—the film’s wisest, and most flexibly perceptive, character when all is said and done.
Ghost Town‘s comic intelligence extends into several secondary characters and supporting performances. Particularly notable in this respect are Kristen Wiig as Pincus’ zanily evasive physician and Aasif Mandvi as the dentist’s persistently good-natured younger colleague.
A curious sidelight on all this is that it is the work of David Koepp, who heretofore has been known chiefly as a screenwriter for Spielbergian blockbusters (including the latest Indiana Jones installment). Koepp directed Ghost Town (and co-wrote it with John Kamps), and the results feel like the work of someone very well-schooled (and fully engaged) in the best traditions of American film comedy—the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s, certainly, but with a bracing whiff or two of Preston Sturges from the 1940s and mid-phase Woody Allen, as well.