Yes, Ricky Gervais is not a traditional leading man. He's not even a non-traditional leading man, for that matter. He doesn't have any of the leading man strengths, characteristics, or assets. He's pudgy, sardonic, and British. And those are facts, not just the characters he plays.
But this against type role for Gervais works precisely because he doesn't fight it. He plays himself, or the himself we have come to know from his successful television series, the ones brought to us by HBO. In Ghost Town he plays Bertram Pincus, a sad, lonely, embittered New York City dentist, the kind of person who melts into the New York landscape, who you only see if you have a scheduled appointment. He is at best indifferent to his work colleagues, rude to other tenants in his apartment building, isolated from everything New York offers, and a sad representation of humanity.
But through a medical error, one that kills him, but only for seven minutes, give or take, Gervais acquires supranatural powers. He is able to see the walking dead, the ghosts of New York, while still able to live and function as a living being. And this problem perplexes Gervais, brings him into contact with Greg Kinnear (Frank Herlihy), and Téa Leoni, as Frank's former wife, Gwen. Frank is dead, but can't quite let go of Gwen. And this sets up the surprise of the film, which in truth is only nominally a comedy.
The big surprise of Ghost Town is not the performace of Gervais, not Leoni, not the standard shots of Manhattan, or really just the upper east side, and 5th Avenue in the 80's, and parts of Central Park.
No, the big surprise is that this film is just another big fat schmalzy love story.
It's a love story around death and ghosts, around lessons learned and lives changed. Around learning about people and changing yourself, making yourself better, and growing from the experience.
Sure, there are some funny moments. Several, in fact. Some gasto-intestinal jokes. Standard British humor. Some medical jokes, which work as long as our health care system continues to confuse all of us. Some death jokes, which work better among the living. And plenty of dental humor. On that one, yes, it exists. Who thought dentists could be funny?
But the film turns on the chemistry you see developing between Gervais and Leoni. And how they come to each other. And how they fall. And how they come to recognize the attraction, which can easily be described as not natural.
Each holds their role, and carries themselves well. The ghosts of New York provide comic banter, and some silly situations. But they eventually fade from the screen, once Gervais embraces change, and learns both how to love, and how to live.
And that's the lesson for us all. Don't be a ghost in life. Be alive, and try to love.
But you didn't need this film for that lesson, did you?