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MOVIE REVIEW : Cosby's TV Image Haunts 'Ghost Dad'

June 29, 1990|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In "Ghost Dad," Bill Cosby mugs and winks and cavorts his way through a movie most of us thought we'd never see. I mean, after Cosby's last film, the ineffable "Leonard Part 6," who believed there'd be another ?

Still, I suppose you can't blame the star of one of TV's most popular series for attempting to conquer the movies--yet again. What's perplexing is that Cosby keeps choosing vehicles that seem designed to sabotage the conquest.

"Leonard" has a hallowed position in the "bomb" category of your handy video guide; "Ghost Dad" (citywide) isn't quite so stinky, but it's so calculatedly bland that it practically disappears as you're watching it. Call it "Ghost Movie."

It begins at a deceptively jaunty clip, as Cosby, playing a harried widower with three kids, zips through a high-pressure day at work en route to a fatal ride with a wacko cabbie (Raynor Scheine).

Returning home, he discovers he's visible only in a very low light; it turns out he has three days to clinch a business deal that would provide for his family before he wafts into the hereafter. (Maybe they should have called this film "72 HRS.")

I'm not sure why ghost-themed movies are on the rise. Last year there was Spielberg's "Always"; next month there's "Ghost." Maybe it's because Hollywood is an intensely voyeuristic community; ghost movies like "Always" and "Ghost Dad" attempt to defuse the potential smarminess of voyeurism by coming across as old-fashioned family entertainments.

In the case of "Ghost Dad," this is a shame, since there's a wicked comic premise in the idea of a father as the spectral spy of his brood. But Cosby doesn't jimmy his TV image too much here; he wears his goofy-grumpy "Cosby Show" persona like a rock-ribbed life-vest.

It doesn't help that his family--the picture-perfect pre-teens played by Salim Grant and Brooke Fontaine, and his "irascible" teen-age daughter played by Kimberly Russell--is so conventionally homespun. Cosby needs to play opposite performers who needle his cuddliness; instead, a movie like "Ghost Dad" (rated PG) pampers it. Only one sequence is startling. His teen daughter's scuzzy, would-be boyfriend (Dana Ashbrook) calls the house and, in a splendid rage, Cosby snakes himself through the telephone line and out the other end--right into the face of the aghast suitor.

Another letdown: This film opens with the credit "A Film by Sidney Poitier." If only it was a film with Sidney Poitier. Poitier is an OK director, but he's a great actor whose near-absence from the screen in the past decade is a monumental deprivation for audiences. A dinky, TV sitcom comedy like "Ghost Dad" doesn't serve Poitier's artistry, either behind the camera or in front of it.

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