Amid the congested pantheon of romantic male leads, one would be hard-pressed to find a more improbable candidate than Ricky Gervais. I mean, can we talk? Even if one could somehow exorcise images of David Brent, the gaseous desk jockey immortalized by Gervais in the BBC comedy "The Office," one would still have to reckon with the package: the squat, orb-like frame, the craggy smile spiked with stalactite-like canines that would be the envy of the entire Transylvania vampire workers union.
The chief pleasure of "Ghost Town" is the confidence with which the British comedian chips away at those prejudices, defying his own formidable unkemptness to make the case for himself as a successor to the slob-Romeo mantle of Jack Black. If Black can go the distance with Kate Winslet (as he did so charmingly in "The Holiday"), why shouldn't Gervais have a shot at Tea Leoni?
Gervais stifles the loose-cannon mannerisms of his "Office" persona to play Dr. Bertram Pincus, a high-end Manhattan dentist with an unfettered distaste for people and cats. The dyspeptic bachelor keeps all manner of living things out of his Fifth Avenue apartment, which looks out onto a brick wall and is so spartan that one can isolate a lonely Fortnam & Mason tea container huddling in a kitchen corner.
Pincus finds himself surrounded by company of a non-living sort after a routine colonoscopy goes awry. He wakes from the procedure only to be told that he had died for seven minutes, just long enough so that he is empowered with the ability to see dead people wherever he goes. Suddenly, the misanthropic dentist is being stalked by dead construction workers, dead cops, a dead naked guy and a dead Dana Ivey, all hoping he might help them settle unfinished business with the living.
The most persistent of the lot is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a deceased neighbor who engages Pincus to derail the impending wedding of his Egyptologist widow, Gwen (Leoni), to a "scumbag lawyer." Pincus signs on to the mission, motivated by a surge of longing for the comely Gwen, whom he had hitherto treated with unneighborly rudeness.
Breezing into screwball-romance terrain charted by such otherworldly standards as "Blithe Spirit," "Topper" and "Ghost," writer-director David Koepp seems liberated by the chance to put repartee front and center. (His dialogue previously played second fiddle to the effects wizards behind "Spider-Man," "War of the Worlds," "Jurassic Park" and the recent "Indiana Jones" misstep.)
Gervais is a master of the flustered broken thought, and Koepp takes full advantage in scenes that pit Pincus against a distracted doctor (a droll Kristen Wiig) and an imposingly large dog.
The filmmaker is less successful in the give-and-take between Gervais and Kinnear, whose one-note character quickly overstays his welcome. And too many encounters are allowed to sputter out lackadaisically, as if the director were waiting for Gervais to buoy them with a bit of improv. A bit of politically incorrect humor about the Chinese feels like a gratuitous sop to "Office" fans, and a scene in which Pincus corners a romantic rival in the dentist's chair only teases at its sado-comic possibilities.
Audiences who feel battered by Hollywood's usual hard-sell approach to farce may be disarmed by Koepp's soft touch and inclined to credit blandness as understatement. Of all the film's classic predecessors, "Ghost Town" suffers most when balanced against Anthony Minghella's lovely debut film, "Truly, Madly, Deeply," which elicited deep, naked tremors of feeling from the setup of a woman letting go of her dead husband.
But then Minghella never demanded the walloping suspension of belief required by "Ghost Town." Or am I the only one who finds it unfathomable that a dentist as hostile and contrary as Gervais' Dr. Pincus could work up a practice thriving enough to underwrite a split-level flat on Fifth Avenue? Isn't the prospect of a root canal awful enough without having to face a scowling man who says you "have a bite like an Inuit"?
"Ghost Town." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some strong language, sexual humor and drug references. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. In general release.