9/19/2008

Ghost Town

Ricky Gervais as a romantic leading man?
"Are you having a laugh?"
Surprisingly no, but Gervais makes us laugh throughout.





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Several years back and shortly after the initial hedonistic pleasurable rush I felt upon the installation of our family's DirecTV wore off, I realized how very overwhelming it was to suddenly have hundreds of channels at our disposal. Whether you were into knitting or cooking or knitting while you were cooking, there seemed to be something for everyone and I distinctly remember the one fateful evening when my remote landed on the face of British comedian Ricky Gervais on BBC America. Of course, I didn't know it was Gervais at the time— I was so completely sucked into the mockumentary that was the British version of The Office, I felt that Gervais and his character, David Brent were one and the same. I set the remote down and there it stayed as I was fascinated, appalled, and utterly riveted by the absurdly hilarious utterances coming out of the mouth of Brent/Gervais.

While Garry Shandling's self-centeredness on The Larry Sanders Show fit his character's showbiz lifestyle to a "T" and Larry David's curmudgeon shtick on Curb Your Enthusiasm is the perfect extension of Seinfeld's George Costanza, there was something that hit harder about Gervais' characterization. Namely that he felt more realistic, painful, and heartrending than his overly animated American counterpart Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) on the funny but thematically different version of NBC'sThe Office. We empathize with Brent on a level we don't connect to with Scott and the brilliance of that lies in the talent of the show's co-creator and star, Ricky Gervais.

The hilarious mastermind and co-creator of not just The Office but HBO's Extras has had bit parts in American films over the past few years such as opposite Robert De Niro in Stardust and with Christopher Guest's talented improvisational crew in For Your Consideration. Yet writer/director David Koepp—the man who penned such contemporary classics as Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way, Panic Room, Mission: Impossible, and Spiderman—gave Gervais the chance to be a full-fledged leading man in this month's surprisingly freshest and most entertaining new comedy, Ghost Town.

Yes, that's right-- you don't need an eye exam-- Ricky Gervais was cast as a romantic hero. And no, I'm not, as his Extras character would say, "having a laugh." While no doubt half of you are asking "Who's Ricky Gervais?" and those familiar with his work may even be having doubts despite their admiration for him, fear not—when it comes to second thoughts, Koepp is the first one to admit that he perhaps regrets the casting decision. And his reservations aren't because Gervais isn't great in the part and hilarious, but because as opposed to in England where the man has become their country's Robin Williams, here in the states he isn't quite as well known.

While I'm no Miss Manners, it does seem sort of disloyal for Koepp to admit this publicly especially during the same week the film from Paramount Pictures, Dreamworks, and Spyglass Entertainment opens, but Koepp hopes that his winning performance in the film will change this reality and make Gervais not just a full-fledged leading man but a full-fledged American star. I'm predicting he's right and word-of-mouth will not only propel this film to a bigger audience with each passing week but that Gervais will also be considered in Robin Williams' company on our own soil as well. He almost certainly still has his work cut out for him. I still remember the evening of The Golden Globes a few years back when The Office won two awards and the chilly reception and deer-in-the-headlights look given to him by such A-list stars as Billy Bob Thornton as he and the cast bounded towards the stage, no doubt wondering what was with the latest British invasion. Indeed, Gervais is the reason why Ghost Town's hokey premise works and he's so completely "on" in every scene that it's a wonder any other actor could keep a straight face.

As Bertam Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who seems to have chosen his profession for its endless opportunities to force chatty patients into shutting up with various tools, plasters, and tricks of the trade, Gervais plays yet another jerk to incredible perfection. Whether he's avoiding his fellow dentist's impromptu office party by sneaking out the door or forcing the elevator doors closed when his neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni) yells for him to hold it open, Pincus is a man without friends or conversation. He frankly prefers to keep it that way. This all changes when he goes in for a routine colonoscopy and makes the request to be completely anesthetized for the procedure.

Hospital Check-In



The Medical Staff



After he's released from the hospital a day later, he discovers that he's being followed by a large number of pushy New Yorkers with unfinished business. No, they aren't people whom he's wronged in the past, but people who find hope in Pincus due to his ability to see and converse with them as they're all, save Pincus, dead. Rushing back to the hospital to find out why he's experiencing what he fears are hallucinations, his inept surgeon (a hilarious Kristin Wiig) explains that the reason he's seeing ghosts is because, well, he actually died "for a little bit" himself.

"You Died."



Pincus' hopes of avoiding others are dashed as the films tagline promises that "he sees dead people… and they annoy him." This is especially the case when the self-centered and unofficial leader of the ghosts famous for his knack of talking people into things, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) promises that he'll help Gervais get back to his old life if he does Herlihy one favor.

"I Need Your Help."



"New York is Lousy with Ghosts."



With his dashing classic movie star looks and easy charm, Kinnear is the natural choice for the role, playing off the wicked Gervais in the same way he interacted the misanthropic character played by the Oscar winning Jack Nicholson in Kinnear's award nominated role in As Good As It Gets. Unwilling to let Pincus off the hook, the two finally reach an arrangement to solve Frank's problem, namely that his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) is about to marry a man whom Frank fears is no good.

Even though he shouldn't be one to talk as—upon the film's opening—we realize that Frank had been two-timing his wife with a Yoga hottie, once Pincus sees Gwen delivering a lecture on a mummy for her archaeological work, he finds himself instantly attracted. While to Frank, all Pincus needs to do is distract Gwen enough to make her have second thoughts about marrying a picture perfect human rights lawyer, Pincus takes the assignment literally, falling for the beautiful, brainy, and delightfully odd Gwen. Happily for Pincus, as evidence by her work with mummies, Gwen shares an enthusiasm for people who don't talk and also has a bizarre interest in dentistry.

Although Gwen hesitates to give him the time of day, they live in the same building and he has ignored her on numerous occasions in the past, Pincus keeps trying in one of the film's funniest scenes as he tries to engage her in conversation following her lecture. At one point his ramblings become so ridiculously hysterical, I couldn't even hear Gervais due to the audience's laughter. He and Leoni work very well-together. As I wrote about Leoni in my review of You Kill Me, her characterization here made me, "again appreciate the delightful screwball-inspired nuances that Tea Leoni always brings to her characters and wish that she was given far more cinematic opportunities." Equally adept at pratfalls as she is with verbal gymnastics and improvisations, I began to wonder how much Gervais came up with on the fly. It's a pleasure to watch, even in tiny scenes like this one.

Gwen's Dog



A bright and sophisticatedly witty romantic comedy, I'm expecting Ghost Town will be the ultimate sleeper that could, if enough people take a chance on a film with a man they don't recognize on the poster. Admittedly, while the plot setup is a bit generic and we don't really need yet another ghost movie, the three leads (not to mention the supporting players like Wiig) are all in perfect form.

Several years ago, director Brett Ratner said in a newspaper interview that he hoped his Christmas comedy The Family Man starring Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle would help America realize what a talent Tea Leoni truly was. And while his film didn't quite reach the level that he aspired in the way that Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally launched Meg Ryan (as he is after all Ratner and not Reiner), here's to hoping Koepp's film does double duty.

Ghost Town should help reestablish the gifted comedienne Tea Leoni (who in my book often recalls Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur) and should also successfully introduce the unconverted to the comic mastermind that is Ricky Gervais… even if we're never buying the fact that he's a real life dentist with those less-than-perfect teeth. Still, who cares about teeth when it's the things coming out of his mouth that are the most memorable? So in the end, we're "having a laugh" indeed... over and over and over again.