Pulling teeth

6 November 2008

There’s no doubt that, like him or not, Ricky Gervais is the towering figure of British comedy. Aside from the phenomenal success of the Office and Extras, his live shows are the fastest-selling in history. He’s ubiquitous on British television; no late-night chat-show seems complete without him. Even more than this, he has achieved something most British actors can only dream about – he has broken into America.

Already a well-known face from numerous cameos and chat-show appearances, Gervais has now reached new heights by taking the lead role in a Hollywood rom-com. In Ghost Town, he plays Dr. Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who, after waking up from a routine operation, finds himself with the ability to see and talk to ghosts.

Preferring to be left alone, he teams up with the ghost of an equally self-centred philandering husband called Frank (Greg Kinnear), who says he can get all the other ghosts to stop pestering him if Pincus agrees to do him a favour. Frank explains to Dr. Pincus that the man his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) has since taken up with is wrong for her, and Frank needs someone to move in and replace him. Pincus suggests himself, and much invisible-man-based hilarity ensues.

The film really belongs to Gervais, and Gervais alone. He plays his usual David Brent-type social retard, and most of the comedy comes from his cringe-inducing gaffes. As always, he does this very well; his timing is great and he has some very funny lines, but anyone who has seen The Office or Extras will find nothing new in Dr. Pincus.

Most of the jokes follow the well-worn formula of saying something inappropriate, trying to recover by saying something worse, stalling, and finally collapsing into embarrassed silence. It combines well with the whole talking-to-invisible-man-whilst-trying-to-appear-sane gag which is a feature of films like this, but it’s nothing new, particularly as a lot of modern comedy follows the same kind of formula.

Gervais is quite well-supported by the two other main characters in the film. Greg Kinnear does a decent portrayal of narcissism and charisma in Frank, but his character is really there just to move the plot forward. The widow Gwen provides the love interest, and the film centres around her relationship with Dr. Pincus.

The plot of Ghost Town is of the misanthropic-Scrooge-redeemed-by-the-love-of-a-good-woman variety, so Gwen’s role is to see through Pincus’s prickly exterior to the decent man inside. One of the good points of this film is that Pincus never has any dramatic change of character and remains an irredeemable idiot until almost the very end; although it makes his relationship with Gwen a little harder to believe, it prevents the movie from descending into schmaltz. One off-putting aspect is that Gervais’ presence raises the wrong kind of expectations. One associates him with unstintingly real social commentary, but you won’t find any of that in Ghost Town, which is pure Hollywood.

As a romantic comedy, it probably works better than most; there are some good moments and it’s easy enough to sympathise with the characters. There’s no real message or deeper meaning here, but if you feel like watching a decent romantic comedy, and haven’t yet got tired of David Brent, then you will probably enjoy Ghost Town. If you’re expecting something a bit more incisive from a Ricky Gervais movie, then you will be disappointed.

It’s interesting that even though the Office and Ghost Town could not be more different (one is agonisingly real, the other is about a man who can talk to ghosts), Gervais plays essentially the same character in both. This shows that Hollywood has taken on board his immense popularity. It could never have produced anything remotely like the Office because that kind of realism is just too clever, too subtle, and too politically incorrect to be acceptable to film executives with a low opinion of their audience.

The Office has been copied so much now that David Brent has lost his edginess and become familiar enough to be the main character in a standard romantic comedy like Ghost Town. The result is something that’s still funny and enjoyable, but immediately forgettable, and a little disappointing coming from someone who used to be so fresh.