“Ghost Town” is a great idea that doesn’t have very far to go.
A guy dies for seven minutes while under anesthesia, then when he comes back to life, he sees dead people. And they see him, and talk to him, and follow him around Manhattan all day nagging him to help them with their unfinished business so they can go off to the great beyond in peace.
They come from all time periods and backgrounds: a nurse, a cop, construction workers, an elderly couple, even a naked guy. Naturally, the one the ghosts flock to hates people, dead or alive, and so he dreads the company.
This is a perfect fit for Ricky Gervais, whose brand of humor (“Extras,” the British version of “The Office”) mines laughs from the moments in life that make you cringe: the awkward pauses, the uncomfortable asides. His character, Bertram Pincus, became a dentist specifically because he’d never have to talk to people — just shove cotton and sharp tools in their mouths to shut them up.
But you can only wander down this comic road for so long; once you’ve run through a few sight gags, you have to go somewhere else with this old-fashioned, high-concept premise. Unfortunately, director and co-writer David Koepp heads toward sticky sentimentality — and that’s not nearly so good a fit for Gervais. The way in which the ghosts find closure, and the visual effect that accompanies that moment, is too feel-good and looks especially cheesy.
It’s as if Koepp and his writing partner, John Kamps, have created two separate movies and jammed them together. (Actually, “Ghost Town” almost feels like a romantic comedy do-over of Koepp’s 1999 thriller “Stir of Echoes,” starring Kevin Bacon as a man who sees a ghost after being hypnotized.)
Greg Kinnear brings his usual wit and confidence to the role of Frank Herlihy, a cad who was having an affair when a bus struck and killed him (he’s eternally stuck in the tuxedo he was wearing to a party the night he died). Frank befriends Bertram, much to the dentist’s dismay, and offers to keep all the other ghosts at bay if he’ll just do him a favor: keep his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying a man he thinks is wrong for her.
That these two were ever married seems like a bit of a reach. Frank is a false and flashy businessman who prides himself on his ability to manipulate people (hence, his coercion of Bertram); Gwen is an earthy and no-nonsense archaeologist who seems decently suited to her fiance (Billy Campbell), a do-gooder human-rights lawyer, even though he appears humorless.
Nevertheless, the machine is in motion. Gervais and Kinnear play off each other nicely, the former with his wry one-liners, the latter all boundless energy and charm. Some supporting players also have memorable moments in only a few scenes, namely Kristen Wiig from “Saturday Night Live” as the deadpan doctor who botches Bertram’s colonoscopy, and “Daily Show” correspondent Aasif Mandvi as the dental partner who tries to shake Bertram from his miserable life.
Then again, finding happiness is what “Ghost Town” is all about. Too bad Bertram — and the movie — were more enjoyable in their misanthropy.