EmptyToronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- In a sea of serious festival films, "Ghost Town" stands out like a beckoning beacon of welcome frivolity.
A notable change of pace for director and co-writer David Koepp, whose screenplays tend to run along the epic lines of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "Spider-Man" and "War of the Worlds," this lower-key effort offers up a winning mix of sharp comedy and touching bits that keeps the laughter -- a few tears -- flowing.
It follows a time-honored formula, to be sure, but with the hilariously sardonic Ricky Gervais on hand to keep the creeping pathos in check, you've got a spirited crowd-pleaser that's destined to be one of the biggest comedy hits of the fall season.
In his first feature starring role, Gervais is comfortably spot-on as Bertram Pincus, a miserably misanthropic New York dentist (he doesn't hate crowds, just "the individuals within them") whose near-death experience during a routine hospital procedure leaves him with a newfound ability: He can see dead people. Lots of them -- all wandering around the streets of Manhattan with unfinished business to address, and they're turning to Dr. Pincus as their liaison to the living.
The most persistent among them is Greg Kinnear's Frank Herlihy, a philandering jerk who badgers Pincus into busting up the serious relationship between his Egyptologist widow (Tea Leoni) and her new beau (Billy Campbell).
Despite Pincus' protestations, we all know how this is going to turn out, but fortunately "Ghost Town" retains enough of that wry edge to make it seem reasonably fresh.
Working in that proven "Ghost"/"Heaven Can Wait" arena, Koepp (directing a comedy for the first time) and frequent collaborator John Kamps keep the funny stuff coming at a nimble pace.
And while the requisite emotional shift has a life-changing effect on the Gervais character's delightfully cynical demeanor, one wishes he could have been allowed to retain just a little more of that caustic bite.
Still, Gervais, in an extension of the type of guys he played in "The Office" and "Extras," succeeds not only in elevating the material but inducing his talented co-stars, including a scene-stealing Kirsten Wiig as his defensive surgeon, to up their comedy game accordingly.
The big screen is all the richer for his presence.
Opens: Friday, Sept. 19 (Paramount)
Production: DreamWorks Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment, Pariah Prods.
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni, Greg Kinnear, Billy Campbell
Director: David Koepp
Screenwriters: David Koepp & John Kamps
Executive producers: Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Ezra Swerdlow
Producer: Gavin Polone
Director of photography: Fred Murphy
Production designer: Howard Cummings
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards
Editor: Sam Seig
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.