Here we have two movies adhering to classic Hollywood genres. Ghost Town is a Capra-esque romantic comedy about the redemption of a mean-spirited misanthrope. Appaloosa is a western/buddy movie with dash of ironic romance. I saw both at the Toronto International Film Festival and found neither especially memorable. But what elevates the material in each case is the presence of actors who deserve better, specifically Ricky Gervais and Viggo Mortensen. (For my interview with Gervais in this week’s magazine, go to: They picked me for romantic lead!)
There’s no question that Ricky Gervais is one of the sharpest wits in showbiz; and for a comedian he’s an exceptionally good actor. On his hit TV shows, The Office and Extras, his comedy has always been ruthlessly based in uncomfortable realism, not clever jokes. It was inevitable that someone as talented and popular as Gervais would find his way into a starring role in a Hollywood movie. Too bad it had to be this one.
Not that there’s anything wrong with his performance. It’s letter-perfect. In fact, Gervais is quite well-cast as an awkward, unattractive English dentist in New York who loathes the world and the idiots he’s forced to share it with. But despite the fact that he plays the lead in this formula rom-com, Ghost Town is not what you’d call a Ricky Gervais movie. It fits him like a suit that’s three sizes too big. Sure, he rolls up the cuffs, and rips apart the seams of the script with improvised jags, making a credible costume out of it, but you still wonder what he’s doing in the movie in the first place. Also, you feel he’s worthy of a better straight man than the smarmy Greg Kinnear, an actor who to me always looks like someone who’s missed his vocation as a maitre d’.
Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a dentist whose neatly ordered and solitary life changes when he has a near-death experience that leaves him with the distressing ability to see ghosts roaming the streets of Manhattan. They all have favours to ask, unfinished business. As the movie’s promotional tag line says, our hero sees dead people and they annoy him. Kinnear’s character—a ghost who exerts some inexplicable control over the other ghosts—offers to stop them from harassing Pincus if he’ll do him a favour: he asks him to sabotage a romance involving his widow (Téa Leoni) and a slick suitor. Soon the dweeb dentist is soon clumsily flirting his way into a romance.
The chemistry between Gervais and Leoni actually seem pretty plausible. (After all those years with the cute David Duchovy, who recently checked himself into rehab for sexual addiction, Gervais’s bald English wit must come as a breath of fresh air). But Ghost Town is one of those burnished fables that hinges on the creaky moral conviction that awful people can turn into beautiful people in the twinkling of a plot point. It’s a Wonderful Life notwithstanding, this comes across as cheap sentimental formula. People do not fundamentally change, except in Hollywood movies. Besides, I don’t want to see Ricky Gervais morph into a nice guy, even if, during my interview with him, he seemed to be exactly that, a perfect gentleman.
Gervais does his utmost to imprint his signature on a movie that doesn’t really belong to him. His improvised dialogue vaults high above director David Koepp’s script. But we’ll have to wait for Gervais’ next movie, which he will write and direct, to see if his comic genius can make the leap to the big screen without compromise.
Appaloosa: Ed, Viggo, Jeremy and the Cronenberg Effect
Some people think that David Cronenberg is all about violence and horror. But watch his movie and you can see he’s really an actor’s director, who is able to draw career-making performances from his stars by creating a rare intimacy and trust on the set. Actors adore working with him. And he tends to develop an almost addictive bond with his male leads. Cronenberg gave Jeremy Irons his ultimate challenge playing twins in Dead Ringers, which led to Irons’ belated Oscar for A Reversal of Fortune, and a second date with Cronenberg on M. Butterfly. Something similar happened happened with Viggo Mortensen, who moved from iA History of Violence to his Oscar-nominated role in Eastern Promises. (Don’t surprised to see Viggo and Cronenberg team up for a third time).
Now three Cronenberg alumni play with guns on the wild frontier. Actor-director Ed Harris has cast Viggo as his laconic sidekick in Appaloosa—resuming a relationship they forged on the set of A History of Violence—and he has cast Irons as the story’s reptilian villain.
Based on Robert B. Parker’s 2005 novel, Appaloosa is a story of hired guns Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch ( Mortensen), who have worked together for over a decade, keeping the peace in lawless towns. In Appaloosa, a depressed mining town in American south-west, They meet their match in rancher Randall Bragg, an outlaw who has been getting away with murder. Renee Zellweger portrays Allison French, a wily widow who beguiles Virgil, tries to domesticate him, and thus drives a wedge between him and his partner.
There’s not much to the story. And in an era of revisionist westerns, this is a throwback to a style that offers little more than cowboy posturing and quicksilver gunplay. It’s Harris’s movie, and he does his usual solid stuff, while Viggo sits back on cruise control. Both are a pleasure to watch. But Zellweger’s role is so underwritten you wonder what she’s doing in the movie. And Irons, who sounds like he’s doing an impression of Daniel Day Lewis’s strange accent in There Will Be Blood, seems happy just to be along for the ride, doing a western with Viggo and Ed. But really, it’s like watching three amigos passing the time of day in New Mexico while waiting for a call from Cronenberg.