Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Touch of Capra

I finally got around to seeing Ghost Town the other day. It was on the plane ride home from Munich and I’m sure if you’ve flown lately, you know how nice it is to see a good film, given all the garbage that gets shown on the airlines. That aside, I liked this film very much for several reasons, for its performances, which most reviewers have mentioned, but also for its message, which has not been the subject of too many critical analyses of this film.

The focal point of this film is the performance of Ricky Gervais, the great British comic actor who starred in the original version of the TV series The Office. Gervais plays Dr. Bertram Pincus, a New York City dentist who just doesn’t care much for people and even less for their problems. He’s got the perfect job since he can shove all sorts of things in his patients’ mouths, meaning he doesn’t have to listen to their concerns.

One day he undergoes a routine operation in which he is dead for seven minutes before coming back to life. Because of this, he can see ghosts, who upon their discovery that the doctor can actually see and hear them, pester the poor guy with their problems. Just what he needs!

Gervais is brilliant in this film, especially in the hospital scenes when he answers one of those annoying questionnares about everything from when he last ate solid food to how well his laxatives worked. How we’d all love to say the things he does in this scene! He’s also great in his scenes with Gwen (Tea Leoni, in a quirky, captivating performance) with whom he falls in love. Gwen, you see, was married to Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a businessman who cheated on her. Now Frank (who recently died and is now a ghost) wants the doctor to sway Gwen away from marrying a self-righteous jerk who is involved in organizing medical help for Third World countries (that doesn’t make him a jerk, of course, it’s the way the character is written, as some sort of modern day savior). Kinnear, who is making a nice living playing everyday characters with some annoying tics, won’t give up until Dr. Pincus does the job he asks him to carry out. The more the doctor resists, the more Frank talks to the other ghosts he knows and convinces them to ask the doctor to help them as well.

While the film plays cute at times, the story is effective enough and the performances are so good that we accept some of the limitations of the project. Yet there is one brilliant scene in the film that few have discussed. The message here is that when you die, you don’t just go to heaven (or the other place) right away. No, it turns out that we all have some unfinished business we need to have taken care of. As we’re dead, we can’t do it, so we have to tell our story to someone who has undergone death and has then come back to life.

The scene comes after Dr. Pincus’ associate tells him that one day he should understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him and that he needs to actually listen to other people and help them from time to time. It sounds a bit corny, but it comes across in a subtle way and when Pincus finally understands that message, he becomes a new man, so to speak.

Dr. Pincus goes to the ghosts and listens to their stories. All the ghosts have requests for him; some are simple like the father who needs to tell his son where he lost his stuffed animal, while other are more dramatic, like the construction workers who die because of a mechanical problem on their truck. They know why they died, but their foreman thinks he was careless and caused their deaths. They can’t tell him, so Dr. Pincus must relieve this man of his overwhelming guilt.

The scene that follows is really quite special, told without words with only a quiet, bittersweet theme performed by violin and piano as Pincus goes to the people whose lives were touched by these ghosts before they died. As the doctor clears things up with the living, we see the ghosts’ reactions for a second just before the screen turns to white, signifying their departure to their afterlife. It’s a very moving scene and it’s one that has a touch of Frank Capra to it. Like one of the great scenes from Capra's best works such as Meet John Doe or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this scene does share a common message of humanity – all of us need to show our fellow man a little more understanding. It’s this decency that made Capra’s films ring true and it’s this same feeling that makes this scene so wonderful.

It’s this message that makes Ghost Town an above average comedy. The film ends with a cute line about Dr. Pincus being able to help Gwen with a minor problem (or is it a major one?), but it’s a line that fits perfectly and has a sentiment that has been earned. How nice that writer/director David Koepp fashioned a modern-day comedy that isn’t afraid to deal with our deepest emotions about our fellow man.


  1. Ah, I was the only one of 7 of us who liked this film, I'm relieved to see you found something good to say about it.

  2. Lisa:

    Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you liked the film- and stood up for your opinions.

    There are many elements to any film that can make them worthwhile. As I wrote, there are shortcomings here (what film doesn't have them?), but there are enough good points to recommend this film. I also like the film's message- an important thing as far as I'm concerned.