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Ghost Town

Has anyone else noticed that Téa Leoni's pattern of somewhat unlikely screen lovers? Woody Allen, Ben Kingsley, and, now, Ricky Gervais. I hasten to note that of the characters played by these older actors only Bert (Mr Gervais) has any money to speak of — he's a dentist. He is also not really much older than Gwen (Ms Leoni), the widow who lives downstairs in his Fifth Avenue building. But he seems to be at least as old as Mr Allen's failed film director or Mr Kingsley's failed hit man. His only pleasures are keeping people at a distance and telling them why he likes it that way if they get too close. He is the opposite of lovable, but once Gwen takes a second look, she's hooked. I hope that this sort of thing won't go on very much longer. I'm growing tired of watching such a woman of Ms Leoni's radiant intelligence make such choices. Sitting in the back of the theatre and quietly moaning, "What about me?" doesn't at all become me.

When Ghost Town, the movie by David Koepp that brings Gwen and Bert together, was over, I felt that it had told one of the oldest stories in the book: curmudgeon with heart of stone is brought to life by ghosts. But I could think of a single title with which to lump it. It is really nothing at all like Topper, which is a movie about having fun, not finding love. A friend suggested Truly Madly Deeply, but the widow in that wonderful movie still loves her husband truly, madly, and deeply; his ghost has to hang around with its friends and drive her crazy before she'll look at anyone else. As for Gwen, she doesn't see the ghost of her caddish husband, Frank (Greg Kinnear). Bert does. Bert sees all the ghosts with unfinished business because he is one of them — one of them who has come back to life after a bad reaction to the general anaesthetic that he insists upon for his colonoscopy.* An equal-opportunity grouch, Bert refuses to help out any of his new friends, at least until Frank makes his life a genuine living hell.

Frank's unfinished business is his unhappiness about Gwen. He's sorry that he was cheating on her — she found out about it on the very day of his death — and he's convinced that in Richard (Billy Campbell), a human-rights lawyer, Gwen has found the wrong second husband. Frank basically blackmails Bert into trying to block Gwen's path to the altar. This requires Bert to be nice to Gwen, at least, and things go from there.

David Koepp is to be congratulated for never dipping his film into the sentiment across which it sails. His theme is the most heart-rendingly endearing of them all: lonely people in need of connections. The ghosts are all inconsolably lonely; they can't make contact with the survivors who, through some misundersting or other, hate themselves or someone else; a few words from the deceased would clear everything up. Bert and Gwen are lonely, too. Bert's loneliness is obvious; Gwen's takes the form of misgivings about Richard. The reaching out that dominates that last part of Ghost Town would be unwatchably mawkish if it were not for the fine comic sensibilities of both the cast and the script. Bert's knack of putting his foot it when trying to charm Gwen is very funny, especially when he caps his clumsiness with his brilliant but idiotic grin. So is Frank's helpless groaning on the sidelines. The insouciantly peevish tone of the movie's humor is set in the early scene in which Bert is gurneyed to his colonic procedure, only to find himself surrounded by severely distracted medical personnel, including a surgeon (deadpan, hilarious Kristen Wiig) who's working on an artificial tan in the hopes that it will make her "eyes pop," and an anaesthesiologist so green (Aaron Tveit) that Bert not unreasonably wants to know how old he is.

On top of everything else, Ghost Town is as quite shamelessly in love with many of the well-known beauty spots of the town I live in. There's a long shot of the Bethesda Fountain that comes dangerously close to leading the witness. Happily offsetting this is a passing shot — a joke so local that perhaps the filmmaker was unaware of making it — of the monstrous garden statues that frame the marqueed front door of 2 East 82nd Street, just across Fifth Avenue from the Museum. I can't say that the statues look so bad in the movie, but that just goes to show that the camera lies all the time. Notwithstanding its literally fabulous plot, however, Ghost Town tells the truth about people. (September 2008)

* As a veteran of numerous colonoscopies, I must register the complaint that verisimilitude did not appear to be much of an objective in the deployment of this plot point. This shook my faith in Bert's otherwise rather boffo-sounding diagnosis of a mummy's abscessed mandible.

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