Someone once said about W.C. Fields that he had the rare ability to despise amusingly. I can imagine no greater compliment than to say that Ricky Gervais seems, at his best, like a young Fields. They both have the same blocky bulldog head, for one thing, but where the older comic muttered, Gervais turns dithering into an art form. He expresses himself in stop-and-start arias of half-sentences, half phrases, half-words, half-phonemes, pirouetting here into rapier-edged insult and there into sublime high nonsense. Gervais's sensibility is that of a juggler, as Fields's was, and his malice toward all is just as graceful.
"Ghost Town" is an attempt to stuff this character into the box of a Hollywood leading man. Needless to say, that doesn't go very well. Yet the movie's a surprisingly pleasurable trifle, a formulaic but spry comedy-fantasy that runs into trouble only when it starts taking itself too seriously. The director and co-writer is David Koepp, who has written many blockbusters ("Spider-Man," "Jurassic Park," and so forth) and directed a few suspense stinkers ("Secret Window," "Stir of Echoes"); it's his breeziest work yet.
The setup is a rehash of "The Sixth Sense" by way of "Topper": Gervais sees dead people and he finds them tedious beyond measure. His character, Bertram Pincus, D.D.S., is a British-born Manhattan dentist and the kind of fellow who closes the elevator doors when he sees someone else rushing up. A nasty little man, and quite happily so.
After clinically dying for seven minutes during a routine colonoscopy (Kristen Wiig's his doctor, doing droll but thin "SNL" things with her part), Bertram develops the ability to see the thousands of undead who walk the streets of New York City. They look like you or me - or, to be precise, like familiar character actors such as Dana Ivey and Alan Ruck - and they're as shocked as he that he can see them.
The most persistent ghost is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a Master of the Universe type who was cheating on his wife before he died and who now wants Bertram to break up her pending remarriage. Tea Leoni plays the widow, an Egyptian mummy specialist named Gwen, and when the dentist gets a look at her, he's instantly smitten. Ricky Gervais in love? Say it ain't so.
It ain't and it is. Gwen's fiance is a fatally earnest human rights lawyer (Billy Campbell), and the minute Koepp gets these three at a dinner table (along with a Great Dane the size of a bison), we can see why Gwen might be attracted to this lumpy, middle-aged British misanthrope. Quite simply, Bertram gives her the giggles. The ever-underrated Leoni responds so delightfully to the star's acerbic flights of whimsy that the two carve out a subversive space within a conventional movie. They're a confederacy of goofballs.
As Frank and the other ghosts press Bertram to help them find closure, Kinnear and Gervais make an amusing if ultimately tiring comic team. Leoni and Gervais are far better company, but I regret to inform you that "Ghost Town" takes a turn for the somber in the final half-hour. The movie even suggests that a Ricky Gervais character might turn over a new leaf, discover he has a heart, and start dispensing the milk of human kindness.
To which I say: Heresy.
By the time Bertram's dental colleague (Aasif Mandvi) is pulling out his inspirational Albert Einstein posters and the dialogue has started ripping off "Tootsie" ("I was a better man with you as a woman" becomes "I was more alive with you after I was dead," etc.), you realize even Koepp has stopped believing in his movie. All that sustains "Ghost Town" by then is the afterglow of Gervais's marvelous, all-encompassing bile. Somewhere W.C. Fields must be applauding: Anyone who hates public-interest lawyers and dogs can't be all bad.