Make it a Double: THE MUMMY and GHOST TOWN

Underappreciated Ricky Gervais/David Koepp offering has real laughter, tears, and heart

Tom Cruise and Universal Pictures have unleashed The Mummy into theaters as the first chapter in the re-launched Dark Universe, which will feature re-imagined versions of the studio’s collection of classic monsters. Reviews for the film have not been kind, with some pointing to the movie’s patchy story as one of the main problems. With three credited writers to its name, this complaint is certainly more than a little justified.

Thankfully, though, one of those names attached happens to be David Koepp, who is responsible for a number of beloved blockbuster titles, including Jurassic Park, Death Becomes Her, and Mission: Impossible. Though he’s one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters, Koepp seldom ventures behind the camera to direct his own material. When he does, the results have the potential for real cinema magic as was the case with Koepp’s 2008 comedy Ghost Town.

In Ghost Town, Ricky Gervais plays Dr. Bertram Pincus, a sarcastic, apathetic, and generally mean-spirited New York dentist who wants nothing to do with any part of society if he can help it. After a slight mistake during a colonoscopy (which left him temporarily deceased, before being quickly brought back to life) enables him to see and communicate with the dearly departed, all of whom want something from him, Pincus feels like he’s living a true nightmare. Despite this, he agrees to help out a deceased musician named Frank (Greg Kinnear) by helping to woo his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) away from her perfect new beau (Billy Campbell). The only trouble is, Gwen just happens to be one of Pincus’s neighbors and wants nothing to do with him.

This being a comedy dealing heavily in magical realism and starring an acclaimed comic actor, there are naturally plenty of laughs on hand throughout Ghost Town. Unexpectedly, many of these moments come courtesy of its star and his knack for one-liners. “Come back soon,” a nurse calls out as Pincus replies, “What a terrible thing to say at a hospital!” Likewise, the scene with Pincus sitting in a chair as Gwen’s enormous towering dog stares at him panting is hilarious, especially when the character laughs nervously and asks, “Where’d you get your horse?” However, Koepp doesn’t just rely on his leading man to fill the movie with laughs, but gives him some help by casting plenty of comedy-able actors, such as Kristen Wiig as his doctor. The scene where she explains what happened to him is by far the film’s funniest. “Everybody dies,” she says calmly and reassuringly to Pincus in the presence of a hospital representative. “Yeah, but usually at the end of their lives…and just the once,” exclaims Pincus.

Laughs aside, there’s a great amount of pathos to Ghost Town, which most wouldn’t expect, making it a Capra-esque experience. As a way of dealing with the many spirits continuously following him, Pincus agrees to help carry out the various tasks they wish completed. Gestures such as returning a stuffed animal to a woman whose son lost it when his father died and mending a family rift by uncovering an important letter bring closure to the various figures haunting Pincus, allowing them to finally move on to the other side. In the process, Pincus finds himself facing his own past and his own lack of closure that resulted from it. It’s here where Ghost Town finds its essence, by operating as a story of a man having to experience death to find life and experience the world and the people within it in a way he hadn’t before. The beauty of it all is that Koepp never plays tug of war with anyone’s heartstrings. Every time an emotional beat happens, it’s sweet, subtle and ultimately, incredibly touching. It’s hard not to be genuinely moved when a slightly emotional Gwen tells a changed Pincus near the film’s end: “It hurts when I try to smile,” and be even more moved when he says, “I can help with that.”

As a performer, Gervais has proven that he isn’t for all tastes. Yet the actor never found a film vehicle more suited to his talents than Ghost Town. Pincus is the perfect vessel for the actor to exercise his trademark smugness and sarcasm. At the same time, Gervais unveils a hidden sensitivity and emotional innocence to his character, taking him to a place full of vulnerability which is a pleasure to watch. Kinnear likewise entertainingly plays Frank as a shallow cad, before revealing a self-awareness which reminds many where an actor like Kinnear can go. As the film’s female lead, Leoni has little to do at times but react to Pincus and his awkward attempts to get close to her. However, when the film shifts gears, the actress beautifully brings forward her character’s wounded features as well as the undeniable strength she clings to.

Despite receiving some pretty decent reviews from the majority of the critical media, who praised the film’s tone, flow, and feel, Ghost Town failed to connect with audiences, placing #8 at the weekend box-office, coming nowhere close to recouping its production budget.

A similar fate greeted Koepp’s previous high-profile feature, the Kevin Bacon-starrer Stir of Echoes. However, while that film flopped, it was quickly found by a small, loyal following. The same result hasn’t happened to Ghost Town as the film has yet to even earn the title of cult classic, remaining an obscure movie treasure by those precious few who have seen it. Koepp has since tried his hand at directing with the incredibly-maligned Mortdecai, but Ghost Town continues to serve as a calling card for his talent as an sincere and gifted filmmaker.

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