***/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras A
starring Ricky Gervais, Téa Leoni, Greg Kinnear, Billy Campbell
screenplay by David Koepp & John Kamps
directed by David Koepp
by Walter Chaw It's appropriate that at the end of these cycles of films portraying New York as a convalescence ward (25th Hour, In the Cut, Synecdoche, New York, Hellboy II), we have a movie like David Koepp's Ghost Town that literalizes our wounded Metropolis as a graveyard. The picture joins Hancock among the year's more pleasant surprises, both loaded as they are with small payloads packed with little, unexpected explosions of pathos and intimate observation. Koepp's hyphenate stints (Stir of Echoes, Secret Window) have tended towards the supernatural by way of private dislocations, his spooks the manifestation of things left too long in the underneath. No less so Ghost Town, wherein asshole dentist Pincus (Ricky Gervais) survives a near-death colonoscopy only to find himself capable of conversing with the dearly departed--at least, those still tied to loved ones incapable of letting them go. Groundwork for a clumsy bit of pretentious tripe, no question, but Koepp lightens his avowed affection for overreaching by striving no farther than romantic-comedy rewards, balancing them with an admirable amount of leash turned over to Gervais's acerbic improvisations. It's interesting that the traditionally charming characters are cast as irritants or cads, their social facility viewed as defense mechanisms. Suddenly, the dental X-rays that unspool beneath the opening credits make perfect sense; Ghost Town is partly about a suspicion of surfaces.
Pincus is a dick largely because he doesn't trust much about the status quo. When he's admitted for his procedure, he refuses to answer non-pertinent questions on his admittance form, protests an ancillary conversation revolving around fake tans and teeth whitening, and (correctly) observes that his anaesthesiologist seems ill-suited for his position. The hallucinations Pincus thinks he's having post-op are "people," and though the pocket revelation of the picture is that his newly-discovered insight into the human condition allows him to become a better, less standoffish individual, its sneaky revelation is that, despite Pincus's personal need to make connections with his hated fellows, the path to happiness is forgetting. In that sense, an establishing shot of lower Manhattan scrubbed of any habitation--not unlike the best portions of I Am Legend--speaks directly to the temporariness, melancholy, and even speed with which we've forgotten the defining moment of the new millennium.
Although Ghost Town is about letting go, it's perhaps more piquant to say it's about the tragedy of being completely shoved under the carpet: out of sight, out of mind. Pincus's ability to see the dead extends to recently-deceased Frank (Greg Kinnear), who hopes to use Pincus to drive a wedge between his widow Gwen (Téa Leoni) and her new suitor Richard (Billy Campbell). In deciding that the best way to do that is by becoming a rival for Gwen's affections, Pincus makes himself vulnerable to being misplaced, misremembered, and as misunderstood as the mummy whose teeth Gwen, an Egyptologist, asks Pincus to examine. When a happy ending is suggested in Ghost Town's final moments, Gwen's inability to muster a smile provides a fascinating grace note to a picture that has as much to do with disassociation as it is does with romantic connection, physical frailty, professional disappointment, and the nightmare of not meeting the person you're meant to be with--and the nightmare of meeting her. Haunted by any number of spectres, Ghost Town mines the essential sadness of this high concept (from The Canterville Ghost to Topper to Ghost) for a few well-earned laughs and a few more unexpected moments of sober, existential reflection.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The extent to which the picture presents itself as a mature piece is dissected expertly in an indispensible DVD/Blu-ray commentary track shared by Gervais and Koepp in which it's revealed that the original conception of Richard involved a secret safety deposit box and various shady shenanigans. "As the characters strengthened," Koepp says, "we just found that it wasn't necessary." Deciding during the course of the writing process to move away from formula--away from demonizing a philanthropic, handsome, accomplished mate choice--to allow the characters to be ambiguous, sometimes irritating, and always broken is sort of astonishing. The yakker is free entirely of trainspotting, with the pair acting as ombudsmen for one another, censoring every moment they catch themselves narrating the piece. At the hour mark, Gervais launches into an uncomfortable rant about who in their right mind would still be listening to them anyway, to which Koepp responds that Gervais has turned hostile because he's "lost confidence." A great criticism of the Gervais persona, as it happens, and not a bad analysis of the flick ("A funny Marathon Man," says Gervais) in any case. This continues into a discussion of how Gervais's particular genius includes his ability to be horribly racist yet not also terribly offensive.
As for the 1.78:1, 1080p presentation of the film their discussion adorns on BD: In and of itself it's unexceptional and maybe a hair too soft, but by happenstance I was able to compare it to the transfer on DreamWorks' simultaneously-released DVD and the difference was night and day. Unlike the blessedly filmlike BD, the DVD suffers from jaundiced skin tones (and generally uneven colour-timing), blown-out contrasts, and quite-obvious DVNR. Meanwhile, the disc's 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is, par for the romcom course, no barnburner, though the dialogue is crisp and clear and the whole thing has a pleasingly a warm timbre.
The commentary is so good that an attendant "Making Of" (22 mins.) documentary is all the more disappointingly perfunctory. Combining lots of B-roll footage with a few uncomfortable junket-interview excerpts, it has Gervais actually forced to give character notes on Pincus ("He's grumpy...he's misanthropic...he needs a hug"). Koepp, for his part, comes off again as entirely unassuming and pleasant (which makes it harder to be jealous of his extraordinary success as a member of Hollywood's shrinking stable of bankable screenwriters) and manages to tell a new story about the germ of an idea that eventually blossomed into Ghost Town. The rest of it? Plot recap for the HBO "First Look" crowd. "Ghostly Effects" (2 mins.) is at least blissfully brief as it demonstrates the before and after of the picture's "ghosts walking through and being walked through" compositing F/X. I like Koepp's yak-track observation that no one ever laughs at a special effect (something that's borne out by Peter Jackson's otherwise remarkably similar--and great--The Frighteners)--which clarifies how superfluous this extra really is. "Some People Can Do It" (6 mins.) is another rarity: a gag reel that's genuinely funny. Blame Gervais. By the way? I'm hopelessly in love with Leoni still. This might, in hindsight, explain my affinity for the Pincus character. Originally published: February 3, 2009.