The fall movie season achieves comic liftoff thanks to Ricky Gervais, a master of deadpan hilarity playing a dentist who sees dead people. If you don’t know Gervais from the original Brit TV version of The Office or HBO’s Extras, then you are an idiot and deserve root-canal surgery without Novocain. Wait, I’m starting to sound like Bertram Pincus, the Scrooge in a dental smock for whom hell is other people. (Listen, he does live in Manhattan.) When a colonoscopy gone wrong gives Bertram a taste of death, he wakes up with ghosts popping up every which way demanding things from him. It’s Sartre’s No Exit played for laughs.
Cheers to David Koepp, who writes blockbusters (Indy 4, Spider-Man), directs occultish thrillers (Secret Window, Stir of Echoes) and finds a beguiling comfort zone with this zesty, twisted fun. Bertram reluctantly helps dead cheater Frank (Greg Kinnear) — he dies great! — earn forgiveness from his widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni). But in doing so he falls for Gwen and discovers his inner romantic.
It sounds sappy, and sometimes it is, but director Koepp and co-writer John Kamps stay alert to the humor and pathos of Bertram’s isolation. With expert help from Kinnear and the irresistible Leoni, Gervais rides the hurdle of his first big-screen leading role in high style. Gervais is my kind of comic hero — not even a town full of ghosts can scare him sweet.