David Koepp may be best known for writing big studio summer blockbusters such as Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, and last year’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but every few years he gets behind the camera and makes a movie that has an interesting concept but ultimately gets marketed poorly, released at the wrong time, and forgotten about before it even has a chance. Now I’ve never been interested enough to see Koepp’s 1996 directorial debut The Trigger Effect but I did enjoy Stir of Echoes (1999) and Secret Window (2004), his adaptations of short works from Richard Matheson. As a director, Koepp has not found a distinctive voice yet but he manages to make perfectly fine films that should not be overlooked in a day and age where mature, intelligent genre films coming from major studios are in short supply. His latest effort Ghost Town basically suffered the same fate as those I’ve already mentioned, but hopefully the film will find new life now that it is available on DVD.
One of the hallmarks of ghost stories is that sometimes the spirits of the dead cannot depart this mortal coil until they have resolved unfinished business. The ghost town of the film’s title in this case is the island of Manhattan in New York City where thousands of dead souls gather and are left with little choice than to wander the earth for all eternity because they cannot be seen by the living. Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) is a dentist who loathes human contact and is perfectly content with keeping to himself. After going to the hospital for a routine colonoscopy he comes out with the ability to see people who are not really there. Consulting with his cheery surgeon (Kristen Wiig) Bertram learns that there was a problem with the anesthetic he requested for the procedure (even though it was not really necessary) and that during the colonoscopy he was dead for (approximately) seven minutes. Better than that he soon realizes that the people he has been seeing are the spirits of the deceased trapped in New York, and now that they know he can see them every ghost in the city is on Bertram constantly wanting him to help them complete their unfinished business so they can depart for the other side.
But Bertram just wants to be left alone. That is until the spirit of Frank (Greg Kinnear), a cad clad in a tuxedo, persuades Bertram to help him solve a problem with his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni). Gwen,Â who lives in the same apartment building as Bertram and hasÂ not been the recepientÂ of the dentist’s best behavior,Â is marryingÂ human rightsÂ lawyer Richard (Bill Campbell) and Frank wants Bertram to break up the relationship before the wedding. After getting to know her and Richard Bertram is a bit reluctant to derail Gwen’s romance, especially his carefully preserved social shell is being broken down and he finds himself falling in love with her.Â
Ghost Town is not a perfect film and any one who has seen more than a few movies in their lifetime will recognize elements of several forming the basis of David Koepp’s story, not limited to Ghost, The Sixth Sense, and As Good As It Gets. But blending these elements together and finding new ways to tweak the material while eliciting fine performances from his actors is what makes this movie work. His first smart move was to cast the invaluable British comic genius Ricky Gervais (the original UK The Office) in the lead role of Bertram Pincus. Most of Gervais’ part seems like it was retooled after his casting to better utilize his trademark brand of smart, self-deprecating humor but he proves his worth as an excellent comedic actor by rising to the challenge of playing a character who could have ended up being unsympathetic and making him endearing and awkwardly charismatic as only the man who gave birth to the clueless David Brent could.
GervaisÂ does not fit easily into the conventional romantic comedy mold so it helps that Koepp tapped the underrated Tea Leoni as his potential archaeologist love interest Gwen. Leoni never overplays the cuteness and makes her character Gwen one grounded in reality andÂ worthy of our sympathies. You can sense the sadness and insecurity in her soul through Leoni’s performance. Greg Kinnear has always exceeded at playing guys who come across as smug pricks who play up their worse characteristics in order to conceal their own insecurities, so of course he compliments Gervais’ character beautifully as the conceited womanizer Frank. His best moments in the movie are the comic interplay between Frank and Bertram, Frank the consistent devil on the put-upon dentist’s shoulder pushing him to kill any chance for his cuckolded wife to find new happiness. Actor and “Daily Show” correspondent Aasif Mandvi has some funny scenes as one of Bertram’s fellow dentists, the kind ofÂ friendly fellow that Bertram usually shunsÂ but who becomes a neededÂ voice of reason for the misanthrope later in the story. “Saturday Night Life” alum Kristen Wiig is her usual priceless self as Bertram’s tanning-obsessed surgeon and her sharp comic gifts are made good use of here. It would have been easy for Koepp to make Bill Campbell’s character a secret asshole whose downfall we would revel in but he does a shrewd 180 and makes his caring yet dour human rights lawyer a really nice guy who is serious and passionate about what he does. I enjoyed seeing fine character actors such as Dana Ivey, Alan Ruck, and Brian Tarantina as the various other ghosts who interact with Bertram during the story. My favorite bit player is Michael Leon-Wooley who has few lines but has a immense comedic presence as a deadpan hospital lawyer.
I think this is one of David Koepp’s finest films and he inserts some interesting ideas into what could have been yet another ghost story. His decision to make the spirits incessant pests at first and slowly reveal their secret pain throughout the movie is one that does the film justice. I don’t know if Koepp was the first to suggest that when one of the living walks through a ghost they sneeze but that idea is good for a few laughs. EvenÂ though it never really serves a larger purpose it is that kind of detail that sets Ghost Town from the usual pack of cinematic ghost stories. Plus a lot of the movie made me laugh hard, one of my favorite being the ghost ofÂ assassin Irish Eddie (Brian d’Arcy James) who wants Bertram to finish an hit job for him. This is one of theÂ few disappointing aspects of the movie for me. In order to focus more on the budding romance between Bertram and Gwen Koepp has to junk a subplot rich with comic possibilities and doesn’t really figure in the story until towards the end. What would it be like if Bertram had to help out some of the other ghosts and not in some sappy manner? It would be a vastly different movie as the romance would be relegated to the sidelines. Then again I wouldn’t mind seeingÂ that movie as well. In addition, Ghost Town is after all a romantic comedy and it often follows the formula of the standard rom-com right down to the moment where our happy couple break up, sad songs play, and then they reunite at the movie’s conclusion. At least Koepp finds the right note to end his movie on, as the final scene is played out splendidly by Gervais and Leoni.
Dreamworks Home Entertainment’s DVD presentation for Ghost TownÂ is fine for home audiences. The cinematography by Fred Murphy is preserved well in the disc’s widescreen picture presented in itsÂ original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. A strong Dolby Digital 5.1Â English Surround trackÂ along with French and Spanish 2.0 Surround tracks are also presented here.
There are a fewÂ extra features on this DVD, and the most worthwhile is the commentary track from Koepp andÂ Gervais.Â TheÂ director and his wittyÂ star keep the track on the conversational side cracking jokes and sharing lots of information aboutÂ the making of the movie, including Koepp’s observations on the development of his characters.Â It’s clearÂ that Gervais should do more commentaries as his presence here makes thisÂ track a valuable one.
“Making Ghost Town”Â (23 minutes) is a well-done documentary on the making of the movie that tends to come across at times as electronic press kit material but the emphasis is on the filmmaking process and there are aÂ lot of warm interviews with the cast andÂ crew.Â
“Ghostly Effects” runs barely two minutes and concentrates on how theÂ special effects used to create theÂ ghostsÂ ofÂ Ghost TownÂ were achieved. It’s nice but brief.
“Some People Can Do It” (6 minutes) is a gag reel with special emphasis on Ricky Gervais constantly flubbing his lines with laughter. Good for a few laughs, but it does not warrant repeat viewings.
Closing out the disc are a series of previews for Revolutionary Road, The Duchess, Eagle Eye, and Without a Paddle: Nature’s Calling that play upfront when you first load the DVD.
Ghost Town is a smart and hilarious spin on the tired romantic comedy sub-genre that could have been made at Warner Bros. in the 1930’s. I have been a fan of Ricky GervaisÂ since I first watched the original “The Office” five years ago so it was great to see him given the chanceÂ to prove that he is more than capable of playing the lead. I can’t wait to see what he and David Koepp each do next.