Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ghost Town

Ricky Gervais has attracted a lot of fans and probably innumerable detractors in the past ten years or so. One of the originators (with Stephen Merchant) of the U.K. version of The Office (from which the U.S. series starring Steve Carrel derived), he went on to launch another British TV series (Extras, which he also co-wrote and starred in) and an ad lib podcast program (The Ricky Gervais Show) that some saw as going right over the top—both in taste and political incorrectness.

I have always thought Ricky Gervais was great—hilarious and fearless—and I’ve been quite willing to overlook his abrasiveness for the sake of the 75 percent of the time when I find him bang-on as a critic, a “small-p” political commentator, a wit and a stand-up comic. Still, knowing his penchant for going too far, I made no effort to catch him in his earlier movie appearances, which included A Night at the Museum and For Your Consideration, but after watching him in a couple of television interviews when his newest movie came out in the fall of 2008, I was encouraged to think that Gervais would finally be playing a role about as straight as was humanly possible for him. I therefore headed off with a certain amount of eagerness to see Ghost Town.

I was not disappointed. Ghost Town is a charming film with a plot that hangs together very well, and features note-perfect performances from its three major cast members (Téa Leoni and Greg Kinnear appear with Gervais). I was also happy to discover in it a movie with a life-after-death outcome that even an atheist can live with – not only for my own sake, but also because it meant that Gervais hadn’t needed to compromise his own much-articulated position of non-belief too much in order to take on this role.

Ghost Town is billed as a romantic comedy and it has no ambitions beyond that, nor does it need them. Gervais stars as Bertram Pincus, a Park-Avenue-type dentist who is a misanthrope to the very bottom of his heart—until he has a near-death experience during a colonoscopy. Unaware that anything untoward has happened during the procedure (the hospital doesn’t tell him about his brief demise because they don’t want him to sue, and they had him sign a waiver while he was still half-unconscious--although in fact they blame the incident on his insistence on a general anesthetic for a procedure which most people can handle without even a local), Pincus is dismayed to discover that he now has the ability to see people who have died but been unable to shake off this world because of some unfinished business. These individuals all want him to help them rest in peace by doing various kindnesses for them and their loved ones: him, Pincus, to whom kindness to his fellow man is near-anathema.

Pincus’s primary guide to the world of the unsettled dead is Frank Herlihy (played by Greg Kinnear) who was hit by a bus in the midst of trying to buy a love nest in Greenwich Village for himself and his mistress. Somehow Herlihy must make peace with his widow Gwen (Leoni) before he can shuffle off his mortal coil, and he mistakenly believes that the solution is to prevent her marriage to a kind and altruistic human-rights lawyer, whom Herlihy assumes must be a scoundrel. Pincus is the instrument with which he is determined to make this happen.

Predictably, Pincus falls in love with Gwen and must then try not only to dissuade her from marrying the lawyer but also from nurturing any lingering fond memories of Frank. He must also expand his own capacity for kindness, for Gwen is a kind and loving person. From this premise a great deal of humour can arise, and does—and a lot of the nastily funny dialogue has all the earmarks of having come straight out of Gervais’ wicked mind. But he also plays the part with control and finesse, and before too long we begin to genuinely care for Pincus and to root for his future happiness. He is human, not a caricature – as he could so easily have been – and the credit for that goes to Gervais.

The only two unresolved issues in relation to Ghost Town are 1) why Kinnear gets higher billing than Gervais (perhaps the former’s recent film successes, including Little Miss Sunshine and Fast Food Nation, have made him a stronger box-office attraction at least in North America than Gervais, but the latter is definitely the more compelling actor here, and is on-stage for a much longer time, and has—from everything I have read and heard—a much bigger ego. I’m amazed he didn’t fight to have his name on top) and 2) why the movie didn’t get more attention in the theatres: it was out on DVD within two months of its original release.

As a light comedy this movie totally worked for me and I recommend it. It will make you laugh—and cry, but in a nice way. Take a Kleenex, and enjoy.

Ghost Town is rated PG.

Monday, December 29, 2008


“Who knew he could act?”

That seems to have been the question the reviewers of JCVD have been asking themselves—as have, no doubt, the film's enthusiastic viewers. The "he" to whom they are referring is none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD)—the star of the movie and also its subject.

The acting question is, in fact, central to this funny and very moving film. Van Damme has traditionally starred in B-grade action movies where his physique, physical condition and skills at martial arts seem to have been the primary qualifications for his leading roles. That he can act—can give an authentic portrayal of an intelligent, sensitive actor nearly past his physical prime who is unable to dislodge himself from the muscle-man niche to which he has been assigned by the Hollywood machine—is a surprise, and the surprise is an essential component of the plot.

But other questions need to be asked as well, such as: Who wrote this fabulous script which considers its self-referential nature with such gentle irony, but also creates a compelling and sturdily freestanding story? And what genius gave the entire project its lovely film-noir feel, which contrary to what one might have expected, makes it feel not film-noirish, but rather entirely real? (The answer to these latter two questions seems to have a good deal to do with a French writer, actor and director named Mabrouk El Mechri, with whose work I was previously unacquainted, but for whom I will certainly watch in future.)

JCVD is set in Belgium, in the home town of the fictional Van Damme--to which he has returned owing large sums of money to the U.S. government and just having lost a custody battle in California. To his deep sorrow, and her apparent regret, his young daughter has chosen to live with her mother full-time, despite her love for him, because she can no longer stand the way her classmates tease her about his strong-man movie roles. When he gets a phone call (during a cab ride that can only be based on a real incident, it is so apt and funny and true) to say that his cheque to the tax department has bounced, he gets the driver to stop and goes in to the post office to wire money to his U.S. lawyer. There he walks into the middle of a robbery involving three gunmen and half a dozen hostages.

Implicated in the robbery due in part to the machinations of the villains and in part to his own reputation from the movies, Van Damme is also the hero of the tale to the townspeople who have come out in droves to watch the incident unfold--and even to one of the hostage-takers (who insists on a kick-boxing lesson from the film legend). To the locals, JCVD is the home-town boy who has made good. Even his mom and dad come by to argue his inherent virtue and obvious innocence to the police (whose tactical manouevres are based, in one of the film's lovely ironic touches, in a video store).

By the end of the stand-off, and the movie, Van Damme has revealed how deeply wounded his eponymous character has been over the course of his career by his inability to move beyond stock figures and into more dignified, dramatic roles. JCVD gives him and/or his character the opportunity he has been missing, and the results on both real and fictional levels are impressive. In the showing I went to, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as the credits began to roll, and I felt like joining them.

I want to watch this funny, poignant movie again—although I think I may first have to suffer though some of Van Damme’s action thrillers so I get the in-jokes I missed the first time. My inclination to seek out examples of a cardboard representation based on respect for a three-dimensional performance may be the reverse response to what the film envisions, but I expect it is an outcome that Van Damme--both real and fictional--would appreciate.

(JCVD is in French with English subtitles, and is rated R.)