Ghost Town

Ghost Town

Peter Bradshaw

The Guardian


Friday October 24 2008

If breaking America were an Olympic sport for British comics, there's no doubt who would be in the medals table: Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen and Steve Coogan - with relative newcomer Russell Brand coming up fast. But which of them deserves gold? Perhaps it is Baron Cohen, as the only one of the three who has created a bona fide, worldwide big-screen smash. Or perhaps it is Coogan, being the best conventional actor, not reliant on character comedy, and therefore having a career with the greatest potential staying power. But probably on the basis of sheer buzz, trophy silverware, and the remarkable distinction of having been allowed to appear in and script an episode of The Simpsons, Gervais gets top podium position. And his new film, though uneasy in some ways, shows that he can get away with playing the quirky-vulnerable lead in a conventional Hollywood romcom, with glitzy Manhattan settings and opposite such white-bread stars as Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni. He looks and sounds as alien as Gérard Depardieu in Green Card, and yet his alienness is not slighted or patronised or even much noticed. He has got his comedy green card; Gervais is an honorary American.

Anyone who remembers Rik Mayall in Drop Dead Fred or Lenny Henry in True Identity will know how fiendishly difficult it is for British TV comedians to make the Hollywood leap, and Gervais's recent misjudged cameo in Shawn Levy's Night at the Museum made me think it might actually be beyond him too. But make no mistake: Ricky Gervais has done it.

This script, by director David Koepp (who worked on Jurassic Park and the new Indiana Jones) was surely not written for him; in fact, I suspect it predates Gervais's pre-eminence by many years. But Gervais has been placed in its lead role - which might otherwise have gone to, as it were, Steve Martin or Steve Carell - and he's made it work. The screenplay has been tweaked here and there to allow for a British identity, and Gervais has evidently been allowed to improvise around it; Koepp has created spaces for him to riff on his sarky, hyper-ironically-observant persona, periodically pinning him back into the romcom template. This sometimes creates confusion. At one stage, Gervais's character says: "You can tell that Sting is an educated man ..." and I happily settled back, waiting for some choice material. But it never arrives. We have to get on with the conventional storyline. Did the Sting bit get cut? Is it going to be in the DVD extras?

Ghost Town is derived from classics It's A Wonderful Life and Harvey, with hints of Ghost, The Sixth Sense and Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. Gervais plays Dr Bertram Pincus, a grumpy, misanthropic, well-to-do New York dentist. Chronically constipated in body as well as spirit, he goes for a hospital endoscopy, and after the operation almost goes wrong, Pincus comes round to find that he has the ability to see dead people who need his help. Manhattan is filled with tormented ghosts on the lookout for some living soul who can right the wrongs they still suffer, and chief among them is Frank (Kinnear) a smug big-shot who died in a freak accident and who wants Pincus to prevent his long-suffering widow Gwen (Leoni) from remarrying. Conceited Pincus suggests distracting her with his own attentions - quite certain, of course, that he could never fall in love with her himself. But guess what?

Not all the laughs are down to Gervais. Kinnear's untimely death is a clever variation on Charlie Chaplin's famous instructions on how to film the banana-skin joke: shot of banana-skin on ground, shot of man walking blithely towards it, shot of man's feet just missing the banana-skin - phew - and, lastly, shot of man falling down open manhole.

But Gervais makes all the comedy running, and he is, by and large, never allowed to compromise his all-important cynicism and resentment. (It is extraordinary, I think, how influential his style is becoming: for example, Emma Stone's tailing-off dialogue in the recent Playboy comedy The House Bunny is very Gervais-ish.) There is a funny moment, when Pincus returns to confront his surgeon, excellently played by SNL regular Kristen Wiig. Believing Pincus is about to sue the hospital, she goes into an incoherent state of corporate denial-panic and cannot have a normal conversation. This could well be exactly as Koepp scripted it, and yet it feels like pure Gervais.

Obviously, the spectacle of Ricky in love is the big challenge, and the movie more or less makes it plausible, though there are some uneasy moments when he has to play it straight. (Speaking of which, the obvious comedy avenue of Dr Pincus having to deny that he is gay is incidentally unexplored, perhaps because it is so obvious.) Dr Pincus's backstory is that he came to the US because his girlfriend was American, but confesses that she finally left him and "went to Portland"; the line feels uncomfortable, rather than poignant.

Be that as it may. Ricky Gervais has carried off a proper, big Hollywood film; he may not be a natural, but he's done it without any hesitation or cultural cringe or apologetic foregrounding of his Britishness. He's cracked it.

big-shot – ważniak

blithely – beztrosko

bona fide – szczery, autentyczny, w dobrej wierze

cringe – płaszczenie się, uniżoność, służalczość

manhole – właz

poignant – przejmujący

quirky - dziwaczny

romcom romantic comedy; komedia romantyczna

sarky – (potoczne) sarkastyczny

smug – zadowolony z siebie, próżny

to be on the lookout – rozgladać się, wypatrywać czegoś

tweak – ulepszać

Nie masz uprawnień do komentowania

Wszystko do nauki języków


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