If you ask the average American TV or movie watcher who Ricky Gervais is, the best answer you could hope for would be “Isn’t he the guy who did the British version of The Office?” The answer would be correct, and subsequently wrong all at the same time. Sure, Gervais was the brains behind the BBC Office series and the guy who brought it across the Atlantic Ocean to where it is now one of the most popular shows on TV — but that certainly isn’t all there is to his story. In fact, even I am not vested in the full-Gervais. Before heading in to see his new film Ghost Town this week, I was aware of his role with The Office, and his other TV show Extras, both of which had found success. But was I ready for Ricky Gervais the movie star? Obviously not.
In Ghost Town, Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, D.D.S., a surly man living in New York whose goal in life is to be left alone. He has neither the time nor the patience to deal with the throngs of people that he encounters on a daily basis. Of course, it only gets worse after he has a near death experience after an ill-advised bout with anesthetics during a colonoscopy. Now, not only does he have to deal with the living, but he can also see and hear the dead.
Among the dead folks that have become the latest annoyance in his life is Frank, played by Greg Kinnear, a bullish New York business man who was killed in a freak accident on the same day that his wife, played by Téa Leoni, found out about his 20-something Yoga instructor girlfriend. Now Frank needs Dr. Pincus to make things right by breaking up his wife’s new romance with a human rights lawyer.
The story, which was devised in part by director David Koepp, is a pretty simple and unimaginative one. Koepp, whose writing credits include Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Spider-Man, is a bit out of his element with a romantic comedy, and it shows. The characters in the supporting cast are shallow archetypes — silly clichés that could have been stripped from any of the thousand or so other formulaic rom-coms that have graced the silver screen since the 80s. To his credit though, the likes of Greg Kinnear are still relatively entertaining, even when they are phoning in their performance.
Yet despite a creatively hollow script and characters that fall flatter than the pages upon which they are written, Ghost Town still finds success riding on the coattails of its star, the incomparable Ricky Gervais. The character of Bertram Pincus may be the exact same character to which he is accustomed to playing, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering the laughs. His deadpan delivery and wry wit have never failed him in the past, nor are they failing him in this performance. As well, his wit is met with equal resistance in one particular scene from SNL alum Kristen Wiig, who plays the doctor who accidentally kills him during his routine butt-surgery. It is enough for me to conclude that I could watch the two of them converse uncomfortably for 2 hours, and that would be entertainment enough for me.
Taken in as “The Ricky Gervais Show,” this movie is a lot of fun. As well, if the unimaginative story put together by Koepp and his team of writers does one thing right, it is that it stays out of the way. As if to say that the filmmakers knew exactly what would make the film work — turn on the camera, insert the supporting cast, and let Ricky Gervais do his thing. If you are one of those American moviegoers who struggles to answer that “Who is Ricky Gervais?” question, this should make for a nice introduction, as it is Gervais at his best in a movie that is, overall, relatively enjoyable. It’s good for a laugh or two, obviously.
The Upside: Ricky Gervais is as funny as anyone else on this planet. In many ways, he is a one man comedic wrecking ball.
The Downside: If you remove Gervais from the equation, there is nothing left to this otherwise unimaginative film.