They seem to love Ricky Gervais in the US. Something I can’t quite understand – for the simple, arrogant reason that I personally think he’s just ok. I can’t see why many other fine British actors or comedians never get the reception he gets.
Anyway they obviously like him enough that someone thought he could star in a romantic comedy. And you know what maybe they’re right because it oh-so-nearly works. And as you may know if you’ve read this blog for a while that’s quite an acheivement for a rom-com in my opinion. The nearly-great ones are rare enough never mind the tuly great.
Gervais plays a mildy misanthropic dentist, Bertram Pincus, who dies briefly on the operating table and acquires the ability to see ghosts. This is not much fun as they all want something from him – all that unfinished business with the living – “tell my daughter I love her”, “the will’s hidden behind the…” and so on.
Chief amongst these is Greg Kinnear who is the dead husband of Téa Leoni and it’s his attempts to frustrate Leoni’s new relationship via Gervais that occupy most of the film. Naturally Gervais falls for her and thus we have a story, albeit a fairly predictable one.
Which is not to say this movie is without its charms – it looks great, it manages to find some shots of New York we’ve not seen a million times before – but let’s get to the key question: does Gervais pull it off as a romantic lead?
Well yes and no.
First the no. At the end of the day he doesn’t look like a leading man. It’s not actual looks per se it’s the way he holds himself I think. He’s too used to being the figure of fun. Also whilst I think he’s likeable and has some chemistry with Leoni, when Greg Kinnear comes on screen you realise what a great comic actor he is and what’s lacking a little with Gervais.
Also, and this is not Gervais’ fault really, there’s this thing that happens in some comedies with a forceful comic personality at the centre where the comedian steps outside of the plot and basically does his schtick – his well-known sitcom character, or even his stand-up routine – and the characters around him/her carry on as if this is nothing unusual. You see it in everything from Woody Allen to Groucho Marx and it makes for a certain kind of comedy, but I don’t think it works in a rom-com because it distances you slightly from the emotional reality of the characters.
What works is that Gervais does sadness well. Cleverly David Koepp co-writer and director, has fashioned a story in which Ricky’s character is more sad than bad. He doesn’t really hate the world he’s hiding from it because he’s been hurt. This is where Gervais’ training as a comic loser comes in, because such characters as David Brent are really tragic figures. So Gervais knows how to make us feel sorry for his dentist Pincus. It’s a short step from there to empathy and to imagine why Leoni feels something for him.
Overall it’s a brave attempt and I did enjoy it. As a movie per se it’s no better than quite good, but if you have to choose a rom-com from the last 5 years you could do an awful lot worse.