Sunday, December 07, 2008

Ghost Town (2008)

Imagine you're a misanthrope (you're reading this blog, how hard could it be?). Now imagine you go in for routine surgery, the hospital botches the anaesthesia, and you have a near-death experience. On the one hand, you are filled with a perverse sort of pleasure: almost dying while having your colon scoped is exactly the sort of evidence a misanthrope needs to prove his worldview is correct. On the other, it's sort of a disappointment. To the misanthrope, a near-death experience is not quite near enough, especially when the net result is a wholly unwanted ability to see and interact with ghosts who roam New York City's streets looking for a way to complete their unfinished business here on Earth. When these spirits realize the misanthrope can fulfill their final wishes, they all come to the misanthrope asking for help.

You can probably conceive of a few stories that could shunt off quite easily and pleasurably from this premise, but you wouldn't imagine that that myriad of spectres and their unusual problems would be totally discarded in favor of a Ghostian love story, while the movie's early, peppery flavor is watered-down by -- well, let's call it "chicken stock": stock characters, situations, and emotions engineered by the film's creators out of fear of really challenging audiences with something unique and special.

Ghost Town's misanthrope is perfectly played by Ricky Gervais, the British comedian and actor who has an almost supernatural gift for turning his characters' suffering into sheer comedic bliss. Desperate to rid himself of the mewling phantasms following him everywhere he makes a deal with a tuxedoed ghost named Frank (Greg Kinnear) who promises to get all the other free-floating full torso vaporous apparitions off his back if he'll shanghai Frank's wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) in her new relationship with a guy that Frank doesn't care for. No explanation is given how Frank could convince or compel hundreds or even thousands of persistent ghosts from bugging Pincus (probably he couldn't), nor does the relatively shrewd Pincus have any reason to believe him, other than it's needed to move the plot along. This general disinterest in the full specifics of the afterlife is further exposed by the ghosts' inconsistent interactions with the corporeal world. They can walk through cars and walls because it makes for a cool visual but they can sit in chairs or on beds because it's convenient for the plot.

But this is probably nitpicking in a film that has much larger problems. The movie has Gervais and Leoni, two of the most fearless comedic leads in the world of entertainment and it makes them play it safe and traditional and entirely by the numbers. I suppose the idea of a crotchety loser forced to help ghosts with their problems in order to achieve a little peace and quiet is an idea better suited to an open-ended television series than a 110 minute Hollywood feature but you can't start off the movie with as great a sequence as the one where Pincus realizes he's nearly died and then is chased by a ever-increasing pack of desperate phantoms through Central Park, then sweep them off the stage in exchange for one boring one, played halfheartedly by Kinnear, who looks like he's stifling back yawns during all of his dialogue scenes. To tell the truth, so was I. The attempted tearjerker ending feels like the sort of nonsense that Gervais spent an entire series called Extras making fun of.

The screenplay was co-written and directed by David Koepp, a favorite collaborator of Spielberg's who worked on Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and others. If Ghost Town was his idea, all credit to him for it and for the casting of Gervais, whose natural delivery and perfect comic timing do a good deal more for the material than the material does for him. There are some laughs (mostly thanks to Gervais) and some clever moments but Ghost Town is a disappointment, and in some ways a less satisfying experience than other, worse movies, because you can feel within it the potential for greatness that is going to waste in scene after scene. It's always more frustrating to watch something that's okay that could be great than something that's terrible through and through. It's enough to turn a writer into a misanthrope. Imagine that.



Blogger Paulyn said...

Good review. Looking forward to watching this film


3:24 AM  

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