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Ghost Town

Dreamworks // PG-13 // December 27, 2008
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 4, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Dr. Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais)
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is more than a little bit of a misanthrope, and that's a Word-of-the-Day-Calendar way of saying he'd just as soon not be around much of anyone, ever. He even slogged his way through dental school so he could score a job that'd let him shove fistfuls of cotton and trays fat-packed with dental mold into his patients' mouths to shut 'em up. Sometimes even a shut-in grudgingly has to turn to someone else for help, though, and during a routine medical procedure to clear up some of the hiccups in his plumbing downstairs, Doc, dies. Oh, it's just for seven minutes, though. No big deal. It's not even worth mentioning. Pincus is up and kicking -- or, well, up and barricading himself inside his ritzy Manhattan sanctum sanctorum again -- so all's well that ends well, right?

Well, not so much. Bertie makes it a point to avoid coming within a couple dozen feet of anyone, and he loathes idle chatter so much that...remember that Twilight Zone episode where the guy agrees to a bet that he couldn't go a full calendar year without talking, and the prick on the other half of the equation tortures and torments him to try to get him to welch? Dr. Pincus could do that without breaking a sweat or some dramatic reveal about snipping the nerves to his vocal cords. Wait, so where was I going with this? Oh yeah: Dr. Pincus can't stomach being around other people, but after returning unaware from the dead, he finds himself swarmed by all sorts of random folks who seem astonished that he can see 'em. They're dead, see, and being ghosts and all, a doorman and a couple of deadbolts can't keep 'em out.

Oh, but one of the ghosties -- a two-timing wheeler-and-dealer named Frank (Greg Kinnear) -- offers to get the rest of the spooks off Bertram's back as long as he does him one tiny little favor. Drum roll...? His widow Gwen (Téa Leoni), an anthropologist who's about to present a pint-sized mummy she's been studying to the world at large, is a few months off from clanging some wedding bells together. Frank's mortified at the thought of this woman -- the love of his life who he...okay, yeah, cheated on -- marrying the wrong guy. All Doc Pincus has to do is break off the engagement, and he's packing enough of a crush on Gwen that he's planning on swooping in himself. 'Course, he'd have more of a leg up if Gwen already couldn't stand the sight of him, but he does have a dead husband in the side pocket to feed him lines...

In the making-of bit on this Blu-ray disc, co-writer/director David Koepp boils his approach to Ghost Town down to just four words and a comma: "broad premise, simple execution". Koepp doesn't bog his
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screenplay down with subplots that kind of mill about, shoehorn in a gaggle of characters just to get a laugh, lean too heavily on CGI as some sort of visual crutch...nope. His screenplay is remarkably sleek and efficient. It's a three-character piece, really: the ghost of a sleazeball, the too-cute clumsy widow he left behind, and the misanthropic dentist who's wrangled into wrecking her wedding plans. Ghost Town could've been a disaster in...oh, let's go with pretty much anyone else's hands. How easy would it have been to just use the chatting-up-the-undead angle to spice up a kind of weathered, stale-as-those-Cheese-Nips-under-the-couch romantic comedy formula and just paint by numbers from there? Admittedly, that's kind of how the trailer made it look, and Ghost Town does gingerly stroll past every last rom-com cliché: y'know, two people who ignore-slash-despise each other are shoved together, they wind up hitting it off, some nefarious secret comes bubbling to surface at the tail-end of the second act that splits 'em apart... Whatever. That's not the point, though. It's not a problem if the frame is yanked off the shelf at Kohl's if the canvas it houses has something really extraordinary splattered across it, and...yup, you get where I'm heading with this.

Ghost Town is acted, written, and directed with an enormous amount of restraint, and especially with Ricky Gervais' name plastered across the marquee, it reminds me more than a little bit of the British version of The Office. It doesn't go big: no colossal, over-the-top comedic setpieces, mugging to the audience, or chucking fistfuls of money at the screen to distract with ornate sets or an eight-figure CGI tab. Because it's not weighed down by too many characters or dangling plot lines, that frees Ghost Town up to focus on...well, being really, really funny. Its sense of humor is dry, quippy, and brilliantly understated. Something as small as an indifferent shrug from Doc Pincus -- showing just how little he cares that the dentist next door squirted out a kid -- can leave me howling. Scoring more laughs out of an off-screen mummified penis-in-a-jar than ought to be humanly possible, a serious, somber confession seguing into hitting another doc up for drugs, riffing on the name of a hypothetical Chinese kid...the list spews on and on from there. At the same time, though, there's a sweetness and vulnerability when you flip Ghost Town over. It's a movie with a big, beating heart, and Koepp and his cast juggle that sort of emotion in with its outstanding sense of humor better than just about anything else I've seen this year.

This is a part
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that seems tailor-made for Ricky Gervais -- I really can't picture much of anyone else stepping in here -- and he bounces off the rest of the cast brilliantly. In one of the disc's extras, Koepp compares Téa Leoni's clumsy Egyptologist to Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, and that's spot-on. Charming, effortlessly sweet and funny, and able to shoulder many of the more emotional moments too, Leoni doesn't run into any trouble selling that chemistry between Gwen and Dr. Pincus. Greg Kinnear's part is a little more straightforward here, but he takes his sleazy, determined spirit and infuses him with a convincing, regretful sense of humanity. Kristen Wiig has a knack for taking a tiny role -- say, the quietly catty network muckity-muck in Knocked Up -- and walking away with some of a movie's biggest laughs. She rocks that same kind of magic here as a meek surgeon obsessed with self-tanner and trying to cover up...well, gross malpractice, and there's some really terrific back-and-forth between her and Gervais. There's really not a single part that's miscast, and pretty much everyone who's in front of the camera long enough to belt out a line scores a laugh at some point.

As much as I loved so many of the other comedies from the class of 2008, I think Ghost Town might get the nod as my favorite. This is a movie that really should've been a hit during its too-short, underpromoted theatrical run, but...hey, that's why store shelves have these shiny five-inch discs all over 'em. One of the movie's morals is that it's never too late for a second chance, so pretend I'm some fairly uneventful looking apparition standing unsettlingly close to you, pestering you to pick up Ghost Town on Blu-ray. You'll thank me later -- pinky swear. Highly Recommended.

Ghost Town doesn't sparkle with that sort of hyperpolished sheen that the home theater crowd usually gushes over, no, but this Blu-ray disc still looks pretty solid, packing all of the detail and clarity I strolled in expecting. The contrast is slightly exaggerated, and its texture is a bit more coarse than usual -- and I'm sure that's just the way the movie was originally shot -- but all of that aside, Ghost Town is pretty much average for a modestly budgeted comedy breezing straight out of theaters. Detailed, reasonably crisp, bolstered by punchy black levels, an unintrusive sheen of grain...yeah. Nothing that'll curl any toes so much but a solid effort just the same.

Ghost Town's AVC encode sports a beefy enough bitrate to spill across both layers on this BD-50 disc, and the movie itself is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

The 24-bit
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Dolby TrueHD track on Ghost Town doesn't veer all that far away from a standard issue comedy mix, but I don't mean that in a bad way. It's a dialogue-driven flick, so the surrounds are mostly used for color, and the bustling streets of Manhattan, chunks of hail streaming from the sky, and a little bit of reverb in an auditorium keep things lively enough. Nothing really happens that screams out for an oversized subwoofer to rattle the walls, but there's still enough heft to the lower frequencies to keep things from ever sounding thin or anything like that.

I could keep rambling on about the dialogue being rendered cleanly and balanced perfectly in the mix, but I'd rather give its terrific soundtrack a nod instead. I mean, the movie opens with The Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You", and also featured prominently are Wilco, Brendan Benson, and -- why not? -- a rendition of "Sabre Dance" performed purely on a violin. If Christmas hadn't just come and gone, I'd be flinging Ghost Town's music supervisor a cheery little card in the mail. Anyway, its lossless soundtrack isn't some overcaffeinated mix that grabs you by the lapels and shakes you around violently or anything, but it's more than decent enough for what it is, and...yeah. That's good enough for me.

Also piled on here...? Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish. Subtitle streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

  • Audio Commentary: Ricky Gervais hops in front of the mic with co-writer/director David Koepp for Ghost Town's commentary track. Gervais is in borderline-complete disbelief that anyone's actually suffering through the whole thing, and he even apologizes a couple of times, but...yeah, it's actually a pretty decent commentary. He kept me cracking up almost as much as he did in the movie itself, keeping up a great back-and-forth with a laid-back and very personable Koepp.

    Some of the highlights...? Gervais poking fun at his sub-childish sense of humor, trying to hammer out the rules of a ghost world devoid of dead babies, simplifying
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    the overly elaborate plot points from earlier drafts, the negligible differences between acting and severe head trauma, whacking a 5,000 year old exhibit at the Met with a ladder, Gervais yanking all of the night shoots out of his own movie after trudging through 'em on this one, and very lengthy discussions about improvisation versus tight scripting. The first half of the track is funnier and more focused than the second, but the whole thing is worth setting aside an hour and a half and change to check out, and it's an essential listen for fans of Gervais'.

  • Making Ghost Town (23 min.; HD): Helmed by...hey, Laurent Bouzereau!, Ghost Town's making-of featurette is a good bit meatier than usual. David Koepp does most of the heavy lifting, touching on what inspired the premise, why he was set on directing this movie, and the backdrop of New York settling in comfortably as the movie's other central character.

    The cast is given a chance to chime in too -- especially Ricky Gervais, who never stops riffing or goofing with the lapdog he's lugging around -- and the sparing use of CGI and the design of the ghosts' wardrobe also get a nod. It's a better than average making-of piece, and having a seasoned featurette-slash-documentary guy like Bouzereau on the payroll keeps it from ever slipping into one of those HBO First Look wastes of time.

  • Ghostly Effects (2 min.; HD): Untouched plates, rough CG renders, and a wireframe of Manhattan very briefly show off some of the different stages of Ghost Town's visual effects work. It's a set of quick comparisons without any commentary or introductions.

  • Some People Can Do It (6 min.; HD): "Okay, fuck the olives!" This brilliant blooper reel piles on one hysterical improv after another in between all the usual blown lines and howls o' laughter.

The Final Word
Ghost Town really shouldn't be slinking in under the radar like this, and I'd chalk it up there as one of the two or three best comedies from the class of '08. Director-slash-co-writer David Koepp nails it without leaning on gross-out sight gags or bug-eyed pratfalls either. Ghost Town grabs hold of a kind of familiar framework and does something really remarkable with it. Its approach is understated but devastatingly hilarious -- as if you'd expect anything less with Ricky Gervais scoring top billing -- and it does it with a heckuva lot of heart to boot. I'm a cold, jaded, semi-pretentious online movie reviewer, and I still found its more emotional moments incredibly sweet too. Ghost Town is a really wonderful movie that didn't get a chance to make the impact it should've at the box office, and it's a very rewarding discovery on Blu-ray. It's so terrific that I'll even forgive David Koepp for writing that unwatchable new Indiana Jones flick. Highly Recommended.
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