Wow, romcoms suck. I mean, as a genre, is there one with a higher probability of absolute bilge? I remember when TS ranted about the lack of Asian-American leads in romcoms, I was grateful someone like John Cho had stayed away. (I guess Romeo Must Die and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift are romantic comedies (however unintentionally) and maybe Cho’s own opus Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay, but yeah the field is thin) Why would any ethnicity want to corner the market on such dreck? The stories are canned, the contrivances hard to overlook, and in so many cases, the sentiment is so god damned forced.
What makes David Koepp’s Ghost Town – an unusually good romcom – is how easily it spins its yarn. The film itself does not actually address any of the normal complaints one can have about the genre. It IS contrived, from the set-up, to the encounter. The story is very predictable, and when I describe it – yup, it’s corny. But it is funny how in these hands, with this script and these actors – it works.
The movie of course stars Ricky Gervais, and he is central to the movie’s effect. This was his first feature film starring vehicle, but he employs all the tricks that he uses to such great effect in The Office and Extras. Here, he plays Bertram Pincus, an English dentist living in New York. Put simply, Bertram is insufferable and quite the misanthrope. (if he were your dentist, I’d wish you had a broader insurance plan) He is mean to strangers, he hates his patients, he obviously lives alone (not even a crazy cat person!) – clearly the charmer.
And then … he dies – sort of. Through this contrivance, he is able to see ghosts – and of course ghosts, who are often unseen by humans, are all too happy to have this sudden medium to talk to their loved ones. One of these individuals is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a lout of a husband who cheated on his wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) but alas, passed away. He wants to make things right with Gwen – who just so happens to live in Pincus’ building. Just from this bare bones description, I am sure you could guess how the plot would work without getting a ton wrong. Bertram resists, shows his meanness etc, then meets Gwen and her fiance and then finds himself falling in love, especially with the inside info Frank is providing. There is a conflict and a resolution. So far, routine.
However, it is amazing what just casting the movie correctly can do for something so typical. What is unoriginal becomes comfortable, and Koepp and his actors find the right notes to elevate the material and make it tougher edged than it had to be. Gervais of course has such skill showing aggravation. He is able to be a giant prick for most of the movie while flashing some reserves of charm. He is clearly smart, but he does not suffer food gladly. But you see his loneliness, and when he makes the requisite “growth”, we believe him. Greg Kinnear is one of the most underrated actors in the game – always useful, whether being a passive aggressive optimist (Little Miss Sunshine) or here, where he really is a cad. Finally of course Tea Leoni projects warmth so easily – and the movie milks every bit of it. Without overacting, she has a way to project goodness – the audience wants her to be happy, whether it be with Pincus or not.