There’s something ineffably, beautifully winning about the New York comedy. It's hard number to pull off these days. For obvious reasons. And here we have a new one, a new incarnation, just arrived – written and directed by David Koepp (writer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Koepp has previously directed such spooky fare as Stir of Echoes with Kevin Bacon. He is a skilful writer – one of the most successful in Hollywood – and his directorial chops aren’t so bad either. But will this old-fashioned tale convince audiences?
Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) is a dentist. He enjoys being a dentist because he hates people. When an especially talkative patient he arrives, he likes nothing better than to fill their mouth with instruments to make them shut up. When his colleague has a small party to celebrate the birth of his daughter, he’s glimpsed sneaking out without attending.
He’s mean-spirited and sardonic. He’s also something of a coward who hates physical pain, so when he goes to hospital for a routine health-check, he insists on a general anaesthetic. When he wakes up, he can see ghosts. And the ghosts all want to talk to him – a Upper East side dude in a tux who hates his widow’s new man, an old lady worried that her daughter didn’t find a letter slipped under the door, and gangland killer who wants to finish the job. There’s several dozen of them. There’s even a camp naked guy who keeps saying ‘is this a bad time?’
Pincus hates this of course. They all want favours. He doesn’t do favours. But the womanising smooth-talker in the tux (Greg Kinnear) is especially persistent; he wants Pincus to stop his wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) dating a human rights lawyer. When Pincus starts to intervene, he rather falls for Gwen as well. He succeeds in creating a problem between Gwen and her fiancé. And then regrets it.
This is familiar stuff – a curmudgeon schooled and made a better person by a series of ghostly visitations was an idea dreamt up by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol well over 150 years ago. The trouble here is Ricky Gervais and, to some extent, the basic interpretation of a well-worn premise. It’s a tough balancing act to make a disagreeable person sympathetic, and Gervais simply doesn’t have the acting skills to pull it off. In the UK, where Gervais is a star, this film will receive a much better reception. In the US audiences will be baffled by this dumpy, unappealing character with no social skills, a Manhattan dental fascist who nevertheless sports British teeth, a man whose ability to charm Tea Leoni seems beyond the realms of wildest fantasy.
But in the end the script doesn’t make us care enough about this man, and his redemption, and nothing Gervais could have done would ever fix that. This is another one for those long-haul flights; perfectly agreeable, quite funny in parts, but I wouldn’t pay money to see it. The New York comedy has yet to find a new form, or so it seems.