Low spirits in 'Ghost Town'

Ghost movies, it seems, are nearly as old as ghosts themselves. But Ghost Town, despite being set in modern-day New York, feels downright ancient.

Ostensibly a comedy, but one in which the (normally) brilliantly funny Ricky Gervais is more dull than he is droll, Ghost Town takes a familiar formula and goes nowhere with it.

Gervais, affectless and aloof, is Bertram Pincus, a socially challenged Fifth Avenue dentist with a selfish, cynical view of the world. But when he awakens in a hospital room - having been anesthetized for a colonoscopy - Pincus suddenly finds that he can see, and communicate with, the dead. (Another good reason not to have your large intestine poked around in.)

Any old soul left in limbo in Manhattan is now visible to the good dentist - and the streets are teeming with these restless spirits, seeking closure before they can go off to wherever their final resting place might be.

Pincus, of course, wants nothing to do with them, but one persistent specter, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), won't take no for an answer. He needs Pincus to thwart the imminent marriage of Gwen (Téa Leoni) - Frank's widow, and Pincus' apartment building neighbor. Never mind that Frank had been cheating on Gwen before he died, he can't stand the thought of her wedding a cad like Richard (Billy Campbell).

And so, because David Koepp's screenplay says so, cranky Pincus, after being nagged and needled by Frank, sets out to court Gwen. She turns out to be witty and acerbic, with a dark, oddball sense of humor, and not unexpectedly Pincus takes to her, and she to Pincus. But many obstacles - the dentist's dire view of humankind, for one, and that fiancé, for another - stand in the way before Ghost Town can toddle off to its happy conclusion.

Gervais does show flashes of amusing snarkiness (his post-op discussions with a doctor played by Kristen Wiig are deadpan and funny). And the quiet, bemused way in which he comports himself is remindful of Alec Guinness in those Ealing Studio comedies The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. (So is Gervais' haircut.)

And Leoni, cool and snappy, appears to be enjoying herself. But the film's very banality sinks its stars, while Kinnear, as the spectral adulterer trying to make things right, is just doing his usual Kinnear thing.

Koepp, an A-list screenwriter whose previous directing efforts have mostly been small, shadowy thrillers, seems to be going for the opposite of manic with Ghost Town. (One of those Koepp pics, Stir of Echoes, starred Kevin Bacon as a guy who sees ghosts.) But while an easygoing, sophisticated comedy is an admirable goal, there's a fine line between relaxed and somnambulistic, and Ghost Town crosses over it, like a jaywalker about to get hit by a bus.

Ghost Town ** (out of four stars)

Directed by David Koepp. With Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni. Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount.

Running time: 1 hour, 42 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

Ghost Town

Directed by David Koepp. With Ricky Gervais, Dana Ivey, Greg Kinnear, Kristen Wiig, Billy Campbell, Téa Leoni. Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount Distribution.

Running time: 1 hours, 42 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some strong language, sexual humor and drug references).