From the minute the opening credits roll on "Ghost Town," you can literally list all the films "Ghost Town" has consumed and will spit out at you. Let's see, it's a sandwich of "As Good as It Gets" and "The Sixth Sense," with a dash of "Heart and Souls" thrown in. Oh, wait a minute, do I taste a bit of "Groundhog Day"?
I'm also sensing some of the classics, like "Topper" and "A Guy Named Joe" (which was remade by Steven Spielberg in the '80s and called "Always," which I also get a huge whiff of here). Oh, it's all those films, and a whole lot less.
But basically, it's the same ol' ghost- haunting- human- being- until- he- complies- with- dead- man's- wishes story.
We have Ricky Gervais as a misanthropic dentist who goes to the hospital for a routine procedure and, thanks to an über-incompetent hospital staff (led by current "SNL" scene-stealer Kristen Wiig), dies for seven minutes. He comes back with a peculiar side effect: He can see dead people.
And not just any sort of dead people, but meddlesome people who want him to complete some task so they can head over to the afterlife. Leading this charge is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a tuxedoed lout who wants our hero to disrupt the impending marriage of his widow (Tea Leoni) -- whom our boorish teeth man begins to get sweet on -- and a saintly yet humorless human-rights lawyer (Billy Campbell).
To tell you the truth, I don't know what's more loathsome about "Town" -- its flavorless rehashing of the aforementioned movies so it can have something resembling a plot, or the fact that this seems to be yet another American movie trying to suck all the funny out of a British comedian.
It seems that this year alone, Hollywood is working overtime in defanging funnymen from the U.K.
It turned "Shaun of the Dead" zombie killer Simon Pegg into a pudgy loser who just needed to lose some weight and gain some maturity in "Run, Fat Boy, Run." (I'm assuming that his starring role in the upcoming "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" will also be devoid of his fanboy snarkiness.)
The hilariously self-centered Steve Coogan was recently seen as a talentless yet good-hearted fool putting on a so-called controversial play in that so-called comedy "Hamlet 2."
And now, it's David Brent front and center, playing a curmudgeonly jerk in need of redemption who turns out to be less irksome than the other characters who make up this supernatural four-hankie farce. It appears that co-writer and director David Koepp's only motivational advice to the actors was to be as obnoxious as they possibly could.
As the movie plods on, it seems obvious that Koepp, who is much more at home hacking up the scripts to summer blockbusters (such as the recent "Indiana Jones" sequel), doesn't possess the kind of rhythm and pacing needed to make a comedy. Scenes played for comic effect transition into scenes of maudlin melancholy, attempting to fill your throat with both laughs and a lump.
But it also seems like Koepp is trying to do some sophisticated yet sweet version of an Adam Sandler/Happy Madison production (complete with gags about human and canine fecal matter). However, instead of Sandler, he has found someone funnier to play the lead -- except he doesn't know it!
When Koepp just lets Gervais go off, awkwardly riffing his way out of one inappropriate comment-filled conversation after another, "Ghost Town" becomes the witty comedy worthy of his (and our) time. When he doesn't, it's another ghost story you can see right through -- and not even to the end.