by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & or a movie filled with so many deaths, this one's pretty funny. Greg Kinnear's quick, violent, and bloodless demise happens right at the beginning -- moments after his character, Frank, all nattily dressed up in a tuxedo, is revealed to be cheating on his wife Gwen (Tea Leoni).
But this isn't a film about getting what's coming to you if you're naughty. It's about being nice rather than nasty.
Say hello to nasty, rude, misanthropic Dr. Pincus (Ricky Gervais). He's the kind of dentist who stuffs plenty of cotton in the mouths of his patients, just to stifle their chatter.
Dr. Pincus dies, too. But only for a few minutes, due to -- sheesh, whose ideas are these? -- a colonoscopy gone wrong. He's revived, and he's fine, but then the film's plot rears its head, and this unlikable protagonist finds that he's stuck with the unwanted ability to see and hear and converse with New York's overpopulation of ghosts, each of whom, it seems, needs a favor from him.
It's an offbeat twist within a film with territory that's been mined many times before. Both Topper and Ghost come to mind. Neither of those, though, has any Lennon-McCartney music, and Ghost Town features the perfectly apt "I'm Looking Through You."
But this one has, even more to its benefit, three pretty solid performances: Leoni, who displays her gift for frustration-comedy; Kinnear, who always comes across as a class act in his films (even though his character in this one is a weasel); and Gervais, who, after a couple of movie cameos here and there between his TV projects (his few minutes opposite Michelle Pfeiffer last year in Stardust were priceless), gets and scores with his first starring role.
There are plot problems when, a year after his death, Frank accosts, then badgers Dr. Pincus into stopping his widow from marrying an apparent bad guy: the good-looking do-gooder, Richard (Billy Campbell). This part simply isn't explained well.
Fortunately, Gervais is around to keep things interesting, using everything from his odd, too-large smile to his delivery of snarky dialogue to make the audience laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time. His style and timing suggests a British edition of Robin Williams.
Gervais (bumbling and mean-spirited) and Kinnear (slick and smooth) clash in comic methods yet work well together. They're not only playing total opposites, they're acting in opposite manners.
Leoni, however, though quite good in the part, doesn't fare as well within the story. The idea that Gwen and Dr. Pincus start off butting heads, then calm down and get to kind of like each other just doesn't work. And by the time the film takes its obvious turn -- that stuff about a certain character becoming nice -- it's too late for anything here to be believable.
On the way there, writer-director David Koepp, who has penned a number of Steven Spielberg's films, from Jurassic Park to War of the Worlds to the newest Indiana Jones installment, tosses in all sorts of mood changes. It's funny, it's sad, it's funny again. There are too many loose ends, too many things happen off-camera that need more explaining, and, due to a restricted budget, there aren't enough ghosts running around to satisfactorily and comically annoy the dentist. (Koepp wanted thousands of them but had to settle for dozens.)
Yet, in the end, the movie is simply good-hearted, filled with a generous supply of really touching moments and hearty chuckles. And though he'll likely never be a hit as a "serious" actor, it provides Gervais -- creator, writer and star of The Office and Extras -- with plenty of opportunity for him to become as big a comic star here as he is in England.
Directed by David Koepp
Starring Greg Kinnear, Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni, Billy Campbell