There are a lot of ghosts in this movie, and I am not just talking about the characters. I'm thinking of the ghost of Shrek, or the Jack Nicholson character in As Good as it Gets, or perhaps even Ebenezer Scrooge -- especially Bill Murray's turbo-charged portrayal of the old humbug in the movie Scrooged. Like these characters in stories from the past, the main character of Ghost Town, played by Ricky Gervais, is an antisocial misanthrope. In the course of the movie, his heart opens up and he is saved -- by love. All pretty standard, in general terms.
But the specifics are somewhat novel. Gervais' character, Dr Pincus, dies temporarily during a colonoscopy that goes off the rails, and when he is released from the hospital, he discovers that he can see and hear ghosts -- a fact that horrifies him but excites the ghosts, because they have "unresolved issues" that they need somebody who's living to help them with.
The key thing is that this gentle story is told really well. The plot has some delightful symmetries. At first it seems as if the main character has been made a dentist simply so we can see him stuffing things into his patients' mouths to shut them up. But no, the plot turns on his occupation: He is able to make a dental diagnosis after looking at the teeth of an Egyptian mummy that makes it possible for him to get close to the lovely Tea Leoni. We learn the touching back stories of several of the ghosts.
But in the end, this is a comedy and a very good one. My wife and I laughed along with our nineteen-year old daughter from one scene to another. The scene in the hospital where Gervais learns from the doctor and the hospital's lawyer that he was technically dead for seven minutes ("less than seven minutes," the lawyer corrects) is a side-splitting classic, but there are plenty of great scenes. It's not quite a five-star comedy like, oh, several of Bill Murray's greatest hits: What About Bob? or Scrooged, or Groundhog Day, or Rushmore. But it's a totally solid four-star effort.
Two small notes -- one positive, one negative.
The positive has to do with the character of Tea Leoni's new boyfriend/fiancé. We are introduced to him through the eyes of Greg Kinnear, Leoni's recently-dead husband, who is, of course, jealous of his replacement. So we think at first that the new boyfriend is a fraud or a gold-digger or something worse. But he's not. He is instead exactly what he appears to be: a humorless guy, maybe even a bit pompous, but in the end, a good and decent man.
The negative has to do with a single word. We watched Ghost Town again recently after seeing another wonderful indie film, Today's Special, which stars Aasif Mandvi (Ghost Town, Today's Special, The Proposal, The Dictator, Spiderman 2). Mandvi plays a small but important part in Ghost Town as the other dentist that Ricky Gervais shares an office with. Mandvi's gentle humanitarian Hindu dentist is a perfect foil to the people-hating Gervais. And so it's appropriate that it is Mandvi who finally gives Gervais the diagnosis that he desperately needs to hear: that he's a jerk. Unfortunately, the writers nodded here, because the line that Mandvi, if he were real, would have uttered ("You're a jerk") is badly marred by the addition of an f-bomb ("You're an f-ing jerk"). Utterly inappropriate to Mandvi's character and jarring. It's a pathetic commentary on our society that Hollywood writers feel the need to avoid that dreaded PG rating.
But now you've been warned about that -- and it's just about the only false-step in an otherwise very sure-footed story. I recommend it.