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by Kathi Maio

What's My Motivation?

LIKE SO many other holiday tradition-junkies, I find that for my winter solstice to be truly festive, it must include a viewing of several movies that have become Christmas classics. Chief amongst these is (surprise! surprise!) A Christmas Carol.

Of the countless adaptations of Dickens for stage and screen (small, large, and computer), my preferred indulgence is the 1951 black and white British film (originally entitled Scrooge) starring the marvelous Alistair Sim—a man who could play icy misanthropy and maniacal joy with equal authenticity. And for a more modern and farcical variation, I usually try to catch a cable screening of the Bill Murray vehicle, Scrooged (1988).

I know most of both movies by heart, so it is easy to multitask while I watch. And although familiarity never breeds contempt, it does foster a tendency to let my mind wander through a few thematic tangents now and then; like whether A Christmas Carol is a total anomaly as a ghost story.

While I wrote Christmas cards and watched, last month, I concluded that it was.

For one of the things that strikes me about all the many tellings of the familiar tale is the simple altruism of the ghostly specters that appear to old Ebenezer at Christmas Eve. They appear to have nothing else on their phantasmal minds except for the saving of his miserable soul. By showing him the past, present, and future of Christmas, they seek to elucidate the error of his malignant ways and point him toward a life of giving and gladness.

You might question their logic. Why help Scrooge lead a better life, when it makes more sense to directly assist all those poor, compassionate and virtuous folk like the struggling and ill Cratchit family? But despite the debatable trickle-down economics represented in the notion that it is most efficacious to save the soul of the rich man so he will be kinder to the poor, there is no doubting the timeless power of this story of redemption and the three generous ghosts who lead the way to a virtuous and happy new existence for Mr. Scrooge.

It's all quite sweet. (And far too treacly for some.) But it is also quite unusual. For in almost all cases that come to mind, spectral visitors have their very own and quite specific agenda when they pay a call on the living.

In scary ghost stories, the raison d'être is usually rage, revenge, or demonic sport and soul-snatching. But even in lighter and more benign ghost stories, the phantom who pops in usually has its own axe to grind (as it were). In the many versions of Oscar Wilde's Canterville Ghost the ghost needs a descendent to wipe out his sin of cowardice with an act of bravery. In Beetlejuice (1988), a nice dead couple seeks to preserve their beloved home. In Ghost (1990), Patrick Swayze needs Whoopi Goldberg to protect the luscious Demi Moore from his yuppie scum murderer, as well as to assist him in finally getting out those three little words we all long to hear. Heck, even in my other holiday must-see, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), the long-dead Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) seeks to save George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from his deepest despair so that poor befuddled Clarence can finally ring that bell and get his angelic wings.

So, what if you had a city practically crawling with ghosts, every one of them with their own needs and wants, and each one longing for a living soul to come along who might help them clear up their loose ends so that they could move on to a peaceful afterlife? This is the premise of a little-seen but modestly delightful romantic comedy from this past autumn, entitled Ghost Town.

David Koepp, a man long associated with sf and fantasy films as a writer (including Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, and War of the Worlds) co-wrote and directed Ghost Town, over-populating Manhattan with dead folk trying—largely in vain—to take care of old business. That is, until they discover that a curmudgeonly dentist can actually see and understand them.

That DDS is a British immigrant named Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais)—a man many might compare to old Ebenezer. Bertram acts like a man who hates other people, but what he really hates is his own life. Hurt by an early love, he has withdrawn into an insular existence that leads him from his office to his austere brownstone apartment next door and back again, with as little interaction as possible with other people. (In fact, one of the reasons he likes his profession is that he can stuff his patients' mouths with cotton and hardware and therefore avoid conversation with them.)

A bloke as prissy and private as Bertie would, of course, view a colonoscopy as the ultimate invasion. And in his case, he'd be right. After making it through a humiliating but seemingly successful diagnostic exam, he is plagued by crowds of impertinent and persistent people who can also pass through solid objects, including human beings. When he challenges his ditzy yet pleasantly tanned surgeon (SNL's Kristen Wiig) about his new "hallucinations," she admits that Pincus died "a little bit" on the procedure table from a bad reaction to his anesthesia. Seven minutes on the other side seem to have made the dentist capable of seeing the many dead souls wandering around New York. And when the dead realize that he can see and communicate with them, they are all over Dr. Pincus, desperate for his help in comforting and healing the friends and loved ones they have left behind.

Since there is no way to hide from ghosts, Bertram is getting a little desperate himself when a sophisticated (if a tad slick and sleazy) ghost named Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) promises to fend off the other spirits if he will only help Frank break up the upcoming nuptials of his widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni), with a "scumbag" lawyer named Richard (Billy Campbell), who Frank claims is out for his wife's money.

And therein lies the "rom-com" premise. The widow Herlihy, it turns out, lives in Bertram's own apartment building and he is a man Gwen recognizes as a known nuisance who has complained to building management about her cooking smells, has closed the elevator in her face, and has even stolen her cab on a rainy day. How could she not find herself drawn to him? Especially when he is such a round-faced, moderately plain, and completely priggish "jerk"?

But that is one of the most entertaining aspects of this particular ghost-filled romantic comedy. With the casting of Ricky Gervais (genius of The Office and Extras who has made a career of playing the clueless and self-involved modern schlub) as the romantic male lead, you have already brought this rather old-fashioned movie to a whole new level.

Yes, casting was certainly a key. And Gervais doesn't disappoint in his first Hollywood lead role. His comic timing, as when he spars with a nurse over his hospital intake questionnaire and then, with sputtering loathing and embarrassment, assures her of the end result he achieved after drinking three bottles of vile laxative, is perfect: real, excruciating, and completely hilarious. But it is the subtlety of the rest of his performance that is a bit of a revelation.

Chafing under Frank's tutelage about life and women (and his widow in particular), Gervais's Bertram nonetheless needs the crutch of his ghostly tormenter and mentor as he first approaches Gwen. His interactions with Leoni's forthright Egyptologist are awkward and endearing. And when he encounters the plot's obligatory "boy loses girl" scene, his despair is genuinely heartbreaking.

After the break, instead of a quick and easy romantic solution to his problems, the plot (and Bertram) take a slightly unexpected turn, when our hero's dental partner, Dr. Prashar (The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi) confronts his stand-offish and self-pitying officemate with an Albert Einstein quotation and the realization that being a "prick" may not be accomplishing what he really wants in his life. Thereafter, the plot wanders into sentimental and uplifting territory for a time. Yet even this plot sideline works well, grounded in the growing humanity of Gervais's portrayal of Bertram.

Gervais, whose own comedy captures a very post-modern and purposefully uncomfortable naturalism, is surprisingly at home in what turns out to be a very retro movie.

It is easy to think of Ghost Town in the company of movies like A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life because it is very much a throwback to movies of an earlier age. The always delightful Ms. Leoni's female lead is sassy and smart (but as befits a widow, something less than madcap). The suave other man, played by Mr. Campbell, is handsome but oddly uninteresting. (Like poor Ralph Bellamy, Campbell's Richard doesn't stand a chance of keeping "the girl," even when it turns out that he is a saint, as well as a dapper fellow.) On the other hand, our awkward and obnoxious Dr. Pincus is on a direct path to personal (and romantic) redemption, whether he likes it or not.

All in all, Ghost Town has the feel of a latter day Topper, with a soupçon of the aforementioned sentimental favorites blended in. For those readers unfamiliar with that particular comedy classic, Marion and George Kerby (Constance Bennett and Cary Grant in the original 1937 movie) are a loving if frivolous and alcoholic couple. When they are both killed in an auto accident, they decide that they need a good deed—ghostly ulterior motive alert!—to get into heaven. So they decide to haunt a stuffy banker of their acquaintance, Cosmo Topper (the fabulous Roland Young). They want "Toppy" to loosen up, rebel against his controlling wife (Billie Burke), let the wind blow through his thinning hair, and embrace life. Their techniques amount to torment, but they accomplish their goal in the end.

Like Cosmo Topper, Bertram Pincus learns to fully live by interacting with the dead. But instead of being haunted by a lovably carefree couple of his own (and the movie audience's) acquaintance, he is plagued by dozens of dead people he never knew. And this fact mostly works against the power of the film.

I liked the acknowledgment that if there are eight million stories in the naked city (as the old TV show intoned), there must be even more compelling stories associated with the dead. I also liked the fact that although the ghosts here are all pushy and demanding—just as you would expect them to be in the Big Apple—it turns out that they are not selfish. They remain on Earth not because they are not ready to pass over, but because the people they left behind aren't ready to let them go. And that is why they pester poor Bertie. They want to heal the living and then move on.

The frustrating thing is that although Bertram is haunted by a wide variety of dead humanity, we learn practically nothing about them or their stories. They have titles in the credits like "Harley Guy" and "Construction Worker Ghost #2" and "Assorted Ghost #3," but we never get to know them. Even Greg Kinnear's Frank—with his erroneous charges that Richard the human rights lawyer is some kind of dangerous hustler—needs to be fleshed out, so to speak. And the only other ghost with a name, Mrs. Pickthall (the wonderful character actor Dana Ivey), is depicted as a loving and worried mother, but the story she tells about her two daughters and a necklace and a lost letter is so sketchy that it doesn't make much sense.

If the motivations of these ghosts are important—and on one level, they are—then it is a disappointment that Ghost Town clutters itself with stray storylines that are never realized. This admittedly compromises the impact of the film, but not seriously so. The central story here is about Bertram Pincus and his reluctant process of rejoining the human race. Like old Scrooge, Bertie needs to get outside his own misery, to begin to think of others and allow for new possibilities, including love. And like Alistair Sim, Ricky Gervais is capable of taking an audience on that journey, and making every moment of it convincing.

Ghost Town is not, however, for every taste. If you like your fantasy and sf films to be action-packed and full of elaborate state-of-the-art special effects, then look elsewhere. This is not one of those fast-cut, slam-bam movies. There is no gore. There is practically no profanity. And the romance is completely chaste. You will not even see Ricky and Téa lock lips. (Which is not to say that there is no chemistry between the two. There is. )

If you are the type who actually enjoys watching (or rewatching, for the umpteenth time) old movies like A Christmas Carol and Topper, you will likely heartily enjoy David Koepp's mild-mannered retro comedy. If not, I would avoid this movie like an infestation of brain-sucking zombies.

And "Bah, Humbug" to you, too.

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