Ghost Town

At first you think “Ghost Town” is about this jerk named Frank, played by supreme jerk-player Greg Kinnear. We meet him as he’s on the phone, chewing out his Realtor for getting his wife mixed up with his girlfriend. (“Does ‘Amber’ sound like the wife of a man my age?!”) Next thing you know, he’s dead, his spirit stuck wandering Manhattan, still wearing the tuxedo he had on at the time of his demise.

But no, “Ghost Town” is actually about a dentist named Bertram Pincus, though I don’t believe anyone in the movie ever calls him by anything other than his last name. He’s played by Ricky Gervais, whom you know from “The Office” and “Extras,” and Pincus is a variation on those brilliant characters: snarky, discourteous, and wholly misanthropic, yet also very funny — not just to the audience but occasionally even to the other characters. It turns out he’s the kind of misanthrope who can really make you laugh once you get to know him.

Pincus dies for a few minutes while undergoing a minor hospital procedure, and when he comes back he has the unique ability to see and hear the hundreds of ghosts, like Frank the jerk, who haunt New York. As usual with these stories, the ghosts have unfinished business for which Pincus’ help is required; the twist is that Pincus has no interest in helping anyone, living or dead, for any reason.

It may sound like “Ghost Town” centers around too many jerk characters, but it’s really only Frank who comes off that way. Pincus is too funny, and we are too much on his side (because really, other people ARE kind of annoying), to dislike him. Besides, he’s balanced out by Gwen (Tea Leoni), Frank’s sweet and kind widow, who works as an Egyptologist and lives in Pincus’ building. She’s about to marry a guy Frank doesn’t like, and Frank wants Pincus to break them up. Pincus, instantly smitten with the lovely Gwen, decides to position himself as the alternative.

It may also sound like there’s too much going on here: fulfilling dead people’s requests, breaking up a romance, and learning to love humanity comprise a busy agenda for one man. That part may be true. David Koepp, who directed the film and wrote it with John Kamps, is a savvy, competent filmmaker whose directorial efforts have usually been more spooky than funny (“Stir of Echoes,” “Secret Window”). His screenplays, meanwhile, have generally been adventure flicks like “Jurassic Park” and “Spider-Man.” “Ghost Town” is one of only a few straight-up comedies he’s written. He brings the funny in impressive doses, but maybe spending so much time in the action genre, which seems to require multiple subplots nowadays, has made him forget that with comedy, simple is usually better.

On a more nitpicking note, it’s hard for me to grasp that there could be someone, like Pincus, who genuinely doesn’t KNOW that it feels good to help others. I can see not wanting to be bothered with it. But to not even be aware that kind deeds generate good feelings in the doer? That seems strange.

Everyone who interacts with Gervais comes out of it looking good, comedy-wise — the man is funny, but he’s a good team player, too. Kristen Wiig is hysterical as a ditzy surgeon, and Kinnear’s scenes with Gervais are so smooth you’d think they were an old vaudeville pair.

Nonetheless, the film owes most of its many laughs to Gervais, who doesn’t try to be a leading man (and even makes jokes about his non-leading-man appearance), and who isn’t afraid to let the emotions of the story get a little sweet where appropriate. Of course, putting the film on Gervais’ shoulders — and more specifically on the shoulders of his comedy stylings — means that if you don’t find his persona funny, you’re not gonna get much out of “Ghost Town.” Personally, I think he’s hilarious, and if the film is little more than his attempt to break out of the “cult following” category and find mainstream American success, more power to him. He deserves it, and “Ghost Town” is an auspicious start.

B (1 hr., 43 min.; PG-13, two F-words, moderate profanity.)