If you’ve never listened to the Ricky Gervais podcast, then you are denying yourself some of the funniest programming ever to come through your headphones. It ran for a few years, in which Gervais, his writing partner Stephen Merchant and idiot-at-large Karl Pilkington discuss all manner of topics. But in one particularly funny segment, Gervais—who clearly does not believe in the supernatural—talks about how ghosts might appear after they’ve died. If you died during a proctology exam, do you wander the afterlife with a doctor’s hand up your backside? The segment gets progressively more irreverent from there, but it all appears to have at least partially inspired Gervais’ feature film debut several years later in a surprisingly sweet, smart and touching romantic comedy called Ghost Town.
The story involves Bertrand Pincus, an Englishman in New York who might just be Gotham’s most misanthropic dentist. He has zero empathy for anyone, and he lives the kind of lonely, midlife narcissism that seems to plague much of modern Western civilization, but especially anyone living on their own in the Big Apple. The New York Pincus inhabits is that Hollywood romcom fantasy version where it’s always autumn in Central Park, the sidewalks don’t have gum on them, and people are much better at getting out of each other’s way than they are in real life. During a routine colonoscopy, Bertrand suffers a near-death experience and gains the ability see, hear and speak with ghosts, and as a result, nearly every apparition in town seeks him out as their link to the living. But because he’s a selfish jerk, Bertrand refuses to help any of them. That is, until he runs into a recently deceased ghost named Frank Herlihy, who was cheating on his wife when he died and wants to do right by her from beyond the grave. Frank offers to get the other ghosts to leave Bertrand alone if Bertrand agrees to break up Gwen’s impending marriage to a seemingly perfect human rights lawyer named Richard, who Frank insists is not nearly as nice as he appears. Bertrand agrees, and befriends Gwen with the intent of somehow sabotaging her opinion of Richard. But of course, along the way, Bertrand and Gwen develop genuine feelings for each other, and soon Frank’s desire to keep Gwen from re-marrying is revealed for what it really is, Frank’s desire for Gwen to not move on from her memories of him.
Most romcoms follow some twist on the whole “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” formula, and that certainly is true here in Ghost Town. But what makes it all so incredibly good is the smartness of the writing, the quality of the dialogue, and the skill of its actors to deliver a story with real warmth to it. Gervais does a fantastic job as the straight-man in an absurd situation while he begins to wake up to the fact that maybe a life dedicated solely to serving himself isn’t the way to go through life at all. Greg Kinnear as the ghost Frank acts as Bertrand’s unasked-for sidekick, offering glib commentary along the way, but who also injects a sincere sense of loss and regret that comes with death and the unfinished business it always evokes. And Tea Leoni wins us over as an Egyptologist who is simultaneously trying to move on with her life while unable to understand why she wasn’t enough for her former husband. There is a delicate mixture of grief, longing and love here that isn’t easy to carry off, but Leoni does it in a way that brings the whole movie together.
Of course, as Bertrand and Gwen’s romance hits an inevitable snag, Bertrand stumbles into a moment of truth where a colleague suggests that maybe if he just tried helping some people, he’d feel better not just about his failed romance with Gwen, but about himself, too. The light bulb goes on, and Bertrand finally faces the crowd of frustrated ghosts who have been constantly following him for help, sits down with them, and agrees to help them all carry out their unfinished business with the mortal world.
What follows is an unexpectedly poignant montage as Bertrand goes about the city, visiting a bunch of total strangers and helping them gain closure with their departed loved ones by telling them something they need to hear, delivering a long-lost item of value, or some other gesture to confirm that their departed loved ones aren’t really so far away, after all. There is a profound sweetness to the scene that is especially powerful for audience member who has recently lost a loved one, as we see heartbroken families gain the salve they so desperately crave. But along the way, the penny drops, and we find that the reason why these ghosts are even around at all is because the living cannot let go of them. The ghosts aren’t haunting the living, it’s the living who are haunting the dead. Once the folks Bertrand visits learn to say good-bye, the departed can finally complete their journey into the great beyond. It is a heartfelt look at what it means to leave your loved ones behind, to grieve, and to wish for those you have lost to still be with you. They can’t still be with us, of course, and we can either accept that and embrace what life has to offer us going forward, or we can hang on until our heart aches and our emotions fray and we do the one thing our loved ones would never have wanted for us: to suffer.
Ghost Town isn’t meant to be a big, heavy movie. It’s a funny and romantic story with real chemistry that is just a joy to watch. But with sublime skill, it also manages to express something significant about life’s fleeting nature, and its unavoidable arrivals and departures. And to think: all this from a colonoscopy gone wrong. That is so Ricky Gervais.