Ricky Gervais is best known for playing the insecure, passive-aggressive boss on the original British version of the TV show The Office, not exactly a role that suggests “Hollywood leading man.” But he makes a serious play for Jim Carrey-level stardom in Ghost Town, a resolutely mainstream comedy that just barely gets by on Gervais’ sarcastic humor and prickly charm.
Town isn’t going to catapult Gervais into Carrey or Adam Sandler territory, but it’s likable enough for its first two-thirds or so, before the achingly predictable plot churns into high gear and director/co-writer Koepp pours on the sap at the expense of humor. Until then, Gervais wrings as much sympathy and affection as possibly out of misanthropic dentist Bertram Pincus, who momentarily dies on the table during a routine operation and wakes up with the ability to see ghosts. Those ghosts are, as in most ghost stories, stuck on Earth because they have some unfinished business, and all of them soon set about bugging Bertram to solve their problems for them.
He’s having none of it, but smug adulterer Frank (Kinnear) finally makes Bertram an offer he can’t refuse, and thus Bertram agrees to break up the engagement between Frank’s widow Gwen (Leoni) and a crusading lawyer. Of course, grumpy loner Bertram starts to fall for Gwen, while self-centered Frank sees the hurt he really caused his wife. The story proceeds along predictable lines, and with a different cast it might have ended up as unbearable treacle. But Gervais gives Bertram an off-kilter sensibility that works best while he still hates pretty much everyone; once he starts learning sympathy and love, that quirkiness disappears.
Kinnear is dependably smarmy, selling his character’s emotional arc better than Gervais does Bertram’s, and Leoni is serviceable as the underdeveloped love interest. Kristen Wiig once again makes the best of a small part as Bertram’s blithely incompetent surgeon. Koepp, one of Hollywood’s top blockbuster screenwriters, pulls the whole thing off with dull professionalism, wisely letting his actors carry the movie. They very nearly get it all the way to the finish.