When critics and moviegoers alike complain about a given genre’s dearth of originality (cough, romantic comedies, cough), what they’re often criticizing is a particular film’s inability to inventively, excitingly reinvigorate those clichés and formulas which stimulate primal emotional responses. This distinction seems pertinent in light of Ghost Town, a phantom-haunts-the-living tale that, in a certain sense, couldn’t be more drearily predictable and safe. Yet if blockbuster screenwriter David Koepp’s rom-com doesn’t breach new territory, it finds small ways to revitalize familiar scenarios—specifically, by underplaying both its romance and its comedy, avoiding towering swells of sentimentality and attuning its tone to Ricky Gervais’s snidely deadpan humor.
Gervais is Dr. Bertram Pincus, a snooty, misanthropic dentist who, after temporarily dying for seven minutes during a routine colonoscopy, awakens to find that he can see Manhattan’s legion of specters. This brings him into contact with Greg Kinnear’s deceased, tuxedoed Frank, who believes he’s still hanging around the city because it’s his mission to keep wife Gwen (Téa Leoni) from marrying a pompous human rights attorney (Billy Campbell). Frank recruits Bertram to keep Gwen single, an assignment the rude, awkward Bertram tries to accomplish by making out-of-his-league Gwen—whom he’d previously treated callously on several occasions in their apartment building lobby—fall in love with him.
It’s a setup as stale as the gags in which Bertram makes an ass of himself talking to the invisible dead in front of breathing New Yorkers, but Koepp shrewdly keeps such moldy moments to a minimum, instead keying on Gervais’s brand of sarcastic pomposity, which as the story progresses gradually recedes to reveal teddy-bear vulnerability. Gervais’s steady stream of cutting bon mots and regular bouts of indignant stammering keep Ghost Town more dry and sharp than broad and squishy, and his unassumingly potent wit ultimately rubs off not only on both Kinnear and Leoni, but also on inevitable third-act crises and reunions, which—indicative of Koepp’s film—ultimately close on a sappy yet authentically tender grace note.