Chances are audiences will recog nize something familiar in Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais). He’s a sad sack, a man with no real connection to the teeming humanity around him, a misanthropic mess living on the most densely populated island in the modern stream — Manhattan. He’s not as good as it gets because Jack Nicholson is not essaying him. He’s actually better in some ways because Gervais, an under-the-radar comic marvel in front of the camera, is the kind of guy regular audiences want to support with laughs that come knowingly from the belly and, surprisingly, the heart.
Bertram is a man drawn into himself so tightly, with such utter compulsion, that he doesn’t even need to be diagnosed and labeled. He simply is the type we’ve come to know so well. And it helps that Ghost Town doesn’t even need to kick things off with him — we are given his opposite number Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a married businessman with a woman on the side and such overwhelming self-regard that he doesn’t need the world to acknowledge him.
He is the world. That is before he becomes a ghost. But even then he is the king of the ghosts of the town. He can’t help being who he is.
And so he assaults Bertram with his only weapon, himself, and a funny thing happens: Bertram becomes a new man. But really it’s Gervais who gets the chance to be himself on the big screen. There’s a lightness to this actor that his earlier role requirements couldn’t contain. The issue could be that Gervais isn’t exactly an actor but a personality, a point I’m more than willing to concede. But his personality is winning and winsome, almost capable of transforming trite material into something worth spending a couple of hours with in the multiplex.
I did say almost, though, and that’s what snags things here. Ghost Town is almost engaging enough to make you forget that it’s a less spooky version of The Sixth Sense or a less drippy romantic take on Ghost. I mean, come on. We want Bertram to get together with Frank’s wife Gwen (Tea Leone) because she’s smart and edgy in ways that Demi Moore could only hope for (and afford after more surgical enhancements). But this movie doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance at any of that, or the horrid notion that Bertram needs to save not only Frank but also a host of other anonymous ghosts hanging around looking for a little closure.
This is a sketchy sitcom premise blown up into a feature film that Gervais wouldn’t pitch on a bad day because there’s not enough beyond his own charm to breath life into this dead Town. Grade: C-
PHOTO: SARAH SHATZ
Ricky Gervais (left) and Greg Kinnear in Ghost Town