Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lonely Guys*

Ricky Gervais, the funniest man in England and possibly America too, is also a singular dramatic talent. It's essential to realize that both voices are really the same. On the original British Office, I found it hard to look at him, not because he was bad but rather his David Brent was so thoroughly entwined with humor and pathos that it was hard to know precisely how to react without burying one's head beneath sofa pillows. (Truth be told, I found this to be a flaw of the show: that his underlings would respond so blankly to his hijinks.) In his first starring movie vehicle, the charming romantic comedy Ghost Town, Gervais plays Bertram Pincus D.D.S. (a name W.C. Fields would have approved of), a misanthropic dentist who undergoes a routine operation that leads to a near-death experience. This, in turn, enables him to see a Manhattan crowded with ghosts, all of whom take to pestering this selfish, hermetically sealed man to fulfill their last wishes.

No, it didn't sound good to me either -- which is why, like everyone else, I opted to not see it in theaters. Had I done so, I may have revised my oft-voiced gripe that Hollywood no longer knows how to make romcoms. David Koepp certainly does. Redeeming his Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull screenplay, Koepp, as both writer-director here, fashions a loving update of those Preston Sturges/Howard Hawks screwball affairs, where a pair of so-mismatched-they're-made-for-each other protagonists fall for each other (sorta) in the midst of a manic ensemble. As the other half of the romantic equation, Tea Leoni demonstrates once again why she was born in the wrong era. In the 30s, she'd have competed with Stanwyck, Russell and Lombard for roles such the one in Ghost Town. She plays Gwen, a paleontologist (now there's a Sturgian profession!) and grieving widow who lives in Bertram's apartment complex. Gwen is mourning the loss of her louse of a husband Frank (Greg Kinnear), who wants to use Dr. P's abilities to break off her marriage to another man.

All this may sound predictable, but Koepp throws a few changeup pitches into his script that neatly undercut expectations. And while his visual sense is understatedly lovely, Koepp's strongest talent is the good sense to stay out of his actors' way. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Gervais nimbly portrays a seemingly irredeemable jerk who undergoes a profound transformation without losing the edge that made him endearing in the first place. Ever since Flirting with Disaster (a rare example of a great contemporary screwball farce), Leoni has had the comic chops; what is new in Ghost Town is her emotional resonance. Gwen is the kind of woman drawn to men she thinks she can fix, which makes Bertram the wrong kind of man. Yet in the wondrous final scene -- a moment as surprising yet sublimely perfect as the end of Before Sunset -- he shows her, and us, what it really means to change.

It speaks volumes that a pair of comic actors in a gentle and goofy movie about ghosts come off as more touching and authentic than nearly all the master thespians up for awards for their Important Films this season. An exception is the remarkable character actor Richard Jenkins, who now proves he can portray a college professor with such conviction you'd think he'd been coasting on tenure for the past twenty years. He's the best thing by far in The Visitor, an otherwise disappointing film about Professor Walter Vale (Jenkins, of course) who befriends a pair of illegal immigrants while attending a conference in New York City. We get early on that Walter is quite the stiff, as unsympathetic to his piano teachers (he's gone through four) as he is to a student turning in a late paper. It seems implausible that he'd feel enough sympathy to let the Syrian/Senegalese couple unwittingly holed up in his New York apartment to continue to stay there; but for at least a little while Jenkins' customary flashes of mad genius -- as when he begins to let his body boogie to the Syrian musician's African drum -- almost make it work.

Writer-director Thomas McCarthy's last film, The Station Agent, was an agreeably ramshackle, low-key comedy about a trio of mismatched friends. The Visitor starts out along similar lines but takes an ill-advised turn into the political when one of the immigrants gets picked up by the authorities. McCarthy wants to show the effects of our political climate on decent human beings just trying to live their lives, but he surrounds his regular folk with so many stereotypes (glowering black cops, stupid white women and mincing gays abound) that the atmosphere renders his message false. With the noble intention of wanting to show the virtues of foreign cultures, McCarthy makes the mistake of denigrating his own. Like most filmmakers out to make a statement, he ends up saying nothing at all.

*Not what you're thinking, random Google searchers.

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