Not many U.S. moviegoers are familiar with Ricky Gervais, the British comedian who originally created the character that shot Steve Carell to fame in the American version of The Office. But those who do know his work on that show know that as amusing as Carell's awkward, self-deluded manager Michael Scott is, it has nothing on Gervais' rendering.
In typical English-versus-American-humor fashion, Carell is over-the-top where Gervais is only subtly exaggerated. Both are funny, but Gervais is funny in a painfully realistic way that borders on genius. This past weekend he brought that genius to Ghost Town (PG-13), a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy that rises to unexpected hilarity thanks to Gervais' ability to infuse an old setup with fresh appeal.
We've certainly seen this character before-a misanthropic but lonely bachelor shuts himself off from the world and treats everyone he meets with disdain until he crosses paths with a beauty who shows him what he's missing in life. My Fair Lady's Henry Higgins ran up against Eliza Doolittle, As Good As It Gets' Melvin met his match in waitress Carol, and now Dr. Bertram Pincus, D.D.S (Gervais) sees his world change thanks to next-door neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni).
The biggest difference between Gervais and his predecessors is that he possesses none of their commanding masculinity. He could bark orders, but no one would listen to them, so instead he employs a low-grade nastiness. If he can't frighten people into giving him his space, he'll annoy them into it. When he finally meets a woman who sparks his interest, his attempts to win her are equally unimpressive. He splutters nonsense and, like a schoolboy, dissolves into giggling and accidentally calls the object of his affection an "idiot."
Ghost Town doesn't just borrow characters from previous films, it borrows plot as well. In the style of 1978's Heaven Can Wait and 1990's Ghost, the action is driven by a dead man's attempt to right the wrongs he's left behind. It's hardly theologically correct, but it makes for a great story conceit. In this case philandering husband Frank (Greg Kinnear) has to prevent his widow from marrying the wrong man. Once Frank realizes that a near-death experience has left Dr. Pincus with the ability to see dead people, he badgers the dentist to help him. No surprise, Kinnear's widow and the neighbor are one and the same woman.
Kinnear plays smarmy well enough and the rest of the cast turn in serviceable performances, but it is Gervais and Leoni who take a patchwork quilt of a romance and make it a comedy worth seeing. The laughs they (and, by extension, we) share are riotous and unexpected. We believe the connection between this ferrety little man and the one woman who gets his skewed, self-effacing sense of humor. Unlikely a candidate as he seems with his pudgy face, rotund body, and high, giggly voice, Gervais the fringe comedian may have just found a new calling as a leading man.
So it is beyond disappointing that the movie also features a smattering of jarring and completely out-of-character obscenities. Without them, Ghost Town achieves a charming, old-Hollywood feeling. Despite one slightly blue exchange about an Egyptian mummy, the content is completely chaste-the protagonists never even kiss on screen. Without the obscenities, Ghost Town would have been a perfect film for families with older kids. With them, it's still a good movie, but loses some of the innocence that makes it a winner.