(CNN) -- Is Ricky Gervais movie star material?
Ricky Gervais deals with the dead in "Ghost Town."
The former stand-up became a celebrity at 40 when he created the character of David Brent in the British sitcom "The Office." Gervais pulled the plug on that international hit after only two seasons and then scored another (less widespread) success with his follow-up, "Extras," as a frustrated actor rubbing shoulders with the stars while he's relegated to walk-ons.
Meanwhile, Gervais weighed offers from Hollywood, taking small supporting roles alongside Ben Stiller ("Night at the Museum"), Christopher Guest ("For Your Consideration") and Robert De Niro ("Stardust") while waiting for the right vehicle to come along.
"Ghost Town" gives him a nice introduction as a lead.
Written by John Kamps ("Zathura") and David Koepp ("Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") and directed by Koepp, "Ghost Town" is a light comedy about a misanthropic dentist, Bertram Pincus, who develops an unwelcome sixth sense after losing his vital signs for several minutes during a routine colonoscopy. He sees dead people.
New York is full of ghosts -- and believing that Pincus might settle their unfinished business, they flock to his side. But Bertram isn't a people person, not when they're alive and not when they're dead. If he agrees to help Frank (Greg Kinnear), it's only because he promises to hold the rest back -- and because Frank has an attractive widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni). If saving her from an untrustworthy fiancé means Bertram has to offer himself as an alternative, then so be it.
By now you're probably ticking off how many times you've seen this story before: in "Ghost" and "Always" and, just a few months ago, "Over Her Dead Body." "Ghost Town" doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does goose the formula romantic comedy clichés.
There's no meet-cute, for example: Pincus closes the elevator on her and then steals her cab. The fiancé turns out to be as perfect as he seems (if insufferably earnest); there isn't even a kiss. Koepp's idea of romance involves mummified corpses, dental forensics and Bertram's sensitive gag reflex.
Not simply a David Brent clone, Pincus is a cold fish, a crab who doesn't want to be drawn out of his shell. It's not crowds he doesn't like, he explains to Gwen, it's the individuals in the crowd.
Once upon a time he might have been played by W.C. Fields (who was famous for his dentist sketch) or more recently, Bill Murray. Gervais is in that ornery tradition of awkward customers, and he comes with the considerable built-in advantage of being English, which makes his disdain and sarcasm all the more heartfelt.
There's a terrific early scene when he goes in to hospital for his operation and brusquely dismisses the standard patient questionnaire as intrusive and irrelevant. On the one hand, this guy clearly has something ugly stuck up his posterior (he is in for colonoscopy, after all); on the other, you want to stand up and cheer him on.
Naturally, Koepp makes it his business to redeem this unpleasant character and recast him as an acceptable stand-in for a romantic lead. But cynics should not despair; it's not a complete makeover. If Bertram charms Gwen, it's because she can't stop cracking up at his cantankerous bad humor, his smocks and his spiky honesty. With her infectiously throaty laugh, Leoni would be any comedian's ideal romantic foil, and she brings a lot to this party.
Ultimately, love prevails, sentiment trumps sarcasm, and the jokes peter out accordingly (though the movie does muster one last bold black comic sideswipe before it's through).
Fans may feel that Gervais is straying too far from the discomfort zone where he really strikes a chord. Certainly, there's nothing radical about "Ghost Town." But it's a smart first step, a safe studio package built around a refreshingly truculent British import.
"Ghost Town" is rated PG-13 and runs 102 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
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