Audiences are primed for a good laugh because economic instability and the upcoming elections just aren’t doing it. Will we get it with the release of “Ghost Town?” This comedy of the dead and near-dead serves up a larger slice of British comic Ricky Gervais. For most Americans he cemented his reputation writing and appearing in “Extras” and the import version of “The Office.” He’s a welcome face on the talk shows.
“Ghost Town” carries a tag line that says “He sees dead people.. and they annoy him.” It invites an inevitable Smackdown! with the recent champ of ghostly cinema, “The Sixth Sense.” This worldwide hit from 1999 is oddly similar to the challenger: Both begin with a shock and both deal with second chances. This Smackdown! asks how we prefer our ghosts — for laughs or for gasps?
Bertrum Pincus is the co-worker from hell, the neighbor so foul you want to drop a house on him. In “Ghost Town” there is no pleasantry he does not poison, no good deed that goes unpunished by this supremely self-absorbed Manhattan dentist. Pincus receives an unwanted gift after he temporarily dies during a routine medical procedure: He can see dead people, they can see him and they all want something. Chief among these is his upstairs neighbor, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) who managed to avoid a falling room air conditioner, but not a passing bus. “New York is lousy with ghosts,” he says. Frank wants Pincus to break up the impending marriage of his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni); the rest of the dead have errands they want Pincus to perform. In exchange, they’ll disappear. Bertrum finally caves in, more from a desire to be left alone than altruism. The script from John Kamps and director David Koepp aims Pincus down a different path. Along the way he discovers Gwen’s fiance is not a “scumbag lawyer,” that Gwen deserved much better from Frank and the dead — like the living — have unfinished business.
The Defending Champion
Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and wife Anna (Olivia Williams) return from an award ceremony honoring his work with disturbed children. They discover a former patient in the house who promptly shoots Dr. Crowe, then kills himself. Crowe takes on a similar patient in “The Sixth Sense” — Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) — and learns the boy is visited by dead people only he can see. “All the time. They’re everywhere,” he tells Dr. Crowe. The patient and the doctor have unsettled homes and a black hole in their personal lives. Both seek resolution and they get it, although not in the way you might imagine. Cole really can see dead people.
Both films are high-level achievements. They effectively tamp down the melodrama; one with humor, the other with psychological suspense. They have superior casts well suited to the material.
I wonder how “Ghost Town” would hold together with a Bertram Pincus other than Ricky Gervais. His mannerisms and comic delivery are perfect. He is utterly hateful, then redeemed and you believe all of it. You even believe that wise-ass Frank Herlihy can become a better person (although dead) and Greg Kinnear pulls it off. Tea Leoni is funny and human and turns in one of her most endearing performances ever.
Bruce Willis elevates “The Sixth Sense” with none of the smirking tough guy swagger that punctuates much of his work. Haley Joel Osment holds the screen with believability and ease. The same holds for Cole’s screen mom, Toni Collette. The real star here is writer/ director M. Night Shyamalan. The film earned six Academy Award nominations, nearly $675 million in box office and spawned a decade of moody thrillers where things are not what they seem.
In the end, the characters in both movies are transformed. These are two strong, rewarding films on different levels. Any difficulty choosing a winner? Nope.
These movies have complementary strengths: Funny/ dramatic, well produced, well acted. Choosing between them requires a closer look at the scorecards.
“Ghost Town” is one of the funniest movies you’ll see this year. It showcases a stellar performance from Ricky Gervais, and that may be its shortcoming. You see his tics and idiosyncrasies and see elements beyond the writer’s real contributions. You’ll want to see more of Ricky Gervais in anything. He pushes “Ghost Town” into the background and that is no criticism.
By contrast, the cast and storyline hold one another closely in M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout movie. This treatment is the one about ghosts and the unknown that will haunt a worldwide audience forever. Shyamalan may never repeat himself, although he’s tried a few times.
“Ghost Town” is the best of a certain kind of ghost movie and you’ll enjoy it. It cannot overtake our winner, “The Sixth Sense.”