People like the idea of the dead communicating with the living. It’s comforting (if borderline creepy) to imagine that our departed are somehow lingering, intact-looking ghosts sticking around until they’re finished with their earthly (mostly corny) unfinished business. It’s romantic to imagine that love never truly dies, that somehow, even after death, we don’t part. Two films almost two decades apart interpret this sappy Halloween-worthy theme in remarkably different ways. Potters wheel in one corner, dentist’s drill in another. May the best prop win.
Ricky Gervais, the British comic genius behind classic series “The Office” and “Extras,” joins forces with two other television comedy veterans, Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear in surprisingly effective if convoluted romantic comedy, “Ghost Town.” After a brush with death, Gervais can see dead people, a fact made all the more remarkable since before his brush with death, he barely noticed the living.
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Who doesn’t remember those big ploppy tears welling up in Demi Moore’s impossibly beautiful peepers in “Ghost?” Who can forget the ceramics scene? Ms. Moore and Patrick Swayze (an actor whose appeal has escaped me) made a potters wheel and The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” sexier than sex. Sam and Molly are deeply in love when Sam is killed by a mugger. When Sam realizes his death was no accident, he communicates with his beloved through Oda Mae Brown, a charlatan whose psychic powers turn stupefyingly real.
I admit it upfront. I laughed and cried at “Ghost Town.” I’m a huge Ricky Gervais fan, and his performance and quirky rhythms worked miracles with a script that I suspect might have foundered in other more predictable hands. Vulnerable, charming and damaged, his Dr. Pincus is complex and winning, more than compensating for his hardly matinee-idol looks. I really wanted him to get the girl, and the girl in question was uniquely worth pursuing. Intelligent, not too young, and odd in just about every way, she’s literally the girl downstairs he has never noticed. Too pretty for him and a bit too tall, she’s obsessed with the dead, the very dead. An unapologetically eccentric dame hanging out most days with a well hung mummy and a misanthropic guy hanging with undead neighbors who need a message delivered — hardly the couple most likely to.
Set in a cinematic orgy of autumn in New York (homesick much?), the movie stays uptown in a few beautiful blocks off and in Central Park. I was grateful our hero never wandered downtown where I expect he might find thousands of far less comfortable and far more unsettling undead wandering about, wishing for less easily accomplished favors. Revenge against Osama Bin Laden perhaps? Setting a movie in New York City and opening it the week after 9-11 is a dicey little proposition for a light romance.
A Southern Californian spending hours a day on freeways slowed to a crawl, I envied the dentist’s commute; his office tucked conveniently next door to his beautiful doorman building. Hardly a leading man, Gervais unexpectedly wins over Leoni’s quirky beauty with his completely offbeat charm and vulnerability. Kinnear plays a variation on his usual handsome guy with a twist. The dentist learns some valuable life lessons from the dead and the living…the dead and the living cross a divide, communicating across decades and even centuries. Time is a fairly liquid place in movieland, and death is portrayed as a slightly inconvenient interruption, a hiccup. The dead are unfazed; they want simple things from their medium – a message delivered, a lost item retrieved. Even after death, little things mean a lot. There’s even a great running joke with a Blackberry. Apparently, you can take it with you, but it won’t get a charge.
A lovely and evocative Beatles song plays uninterrupted over the opening credits, warming us up for sightings of such comedy bright lights as: TheDaily Show’s Aasif Mandvi and SNL’s Kristen Wiig. Their performances are not particularly breakthrough, but it’s pleasant and refreshing to see them on a big screen; still, the entire enterprise seems a bit muffled and subdued once it’s over.
While I know plenty of people who cried at “Ghost,” I was not one of them. Patrick Swayze is an actor whose facial expression mimics constipation when it’s supposed to register thought. A blanker and dopier looking guy would be hard to find on any silver screen, and dumb just isn’t my type. Demi Moore looked luminous and inspired a thousand haircuts. Whoopi Goldberg was lively and surprising; most surprising was her genderblind and raceblind casting in a role that was originally conceived otherwise. She won an Oscar for her (and our) good fortune and broke a barrier that’s not been entirely rebuilt in the intervening decades.
I’m not a believer in ghosts, but if I were, I’d want them funny and romantic, not dark and dramatic. Blame “Topper.” And frankly, I’d rather look at Ricky Gervais’ pudding of a face than Patrick Swayze’s tabula rasa. “Ghost” won Oscars in 1980; I doubt it would get nominated today. “Ghost Town” may not be a great film, but it provides an entertaining and touching few hours in the dark.