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Published: Friday, 9/19/2008

Movie review: Ghost Town ****

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
In Ghost Town, Ricky Gervais, left and below, portrays a dentist who, after a near-death experience, can see ghosts. In Ghost Town, Ricky Gervais, left and below, portrays a dentist who, after a near-death experience, can see ghosts.
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Ricky Gervais, the Brit comic-actor who practically pioneered squeamish comedy starring in the romantic-comedy Ghost Town?

It ll never work, I thought. I was dead wrong.

In fact, Gervais is what makes Ghost Town work, with a desert-dry delivery of off-beat lines and a despicable-but-redemptive character unusual enough to breath new life into the well-worn romantic-comedy genre.

Gervais is known for playing contemptible characters on TV David Brent (The Office) and Andy Millman (Extras) and making them oddly likeable by a warts-and-all exposure of their neuroses and frailties.

It s hard to hate someone, after all, when you know what drives him to be a jerk.

It s the same for Bertram Pincus (Gervais), a wretch of a human who loathes contact with other people.

Unfortunately for Pincus, he s ironically chosen the profession of dentistry, the irony being that he hates conversations, yet he makes his living dealing with mouths.

Pincus has subsequently chosen to shut himself off from the world.

He avoids work parties. He stuffs cotton into his patients mouths to keep them from making small talk. He closes elevator doors in his building as other tenants approach.

Then fate intervenes in the form of a colonoscopy. During the routine procedure, Bertram dies. He s dead for only a few minutes and has no idea what happened to him, until he discovers an odd side effect of his having temporarily left this world: he sees ghosts. And once the ghosts realize Bertram is aware of them, they are drawn to him as their only hope to complete unfinished business on Earth so they can move on to the other side.

One spirit, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), is particularly desperate for Bertram s help, and persuasively pesters him to prevent his widow, Gwen (T a Leoni), from marrying her boyfriend.

Bertram reluctantly agrees to help Frank, but shortly after trying to break up the relationship, he develops feelings for Gwen himself.

Simply reading the Ghost Town plot may make the story seem romantic-comedy formulaic, but it never feels that way on screen, which is a testament to Gervais, Kinnear, and Leoni, as well as to director David Koepp, who co-wrote the script with John Kamps. Koepp and Kamps have written a smart and witty script that manages to stay within the broad confines of the romantic-comedy genre, but avoids most of the cliches.

Yes, Ghost Town has the obligatory feel-good moments that every romantic-comedy must have you know, when a character undergoes a life-changing transformation and does right by everyone but those scenes aren t played so sticky-sugary-sweet as to make them throttle the gag reflex. The actors keep the earnestness in check and never pander for audience empathy.

Even the quiet moments of character reflection are quickly spelled by a joke or two. Ghost Town works hard to keep the mush to a minimum.

The result is what I overheard one woman leaving the movie s screening describe as as a chick flick for guys.

She s right.

Ghost Town is for everyone who thought romantic-comedy is a girls club-only affair.

It has the requisite soft spots for the romantics at heart, but the sharp wit to prove that love can be funny, too.

Contact Kirk Baird atkbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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