TORONTO - Brit funnyman Ricky Gervais agreed to take on the role of leading man in the romantic comedy Ghost Town on one condition: no nudity. "You don't want to see this with a shirt off," Gervais says, referring to his pudgy frame, whose love handles are hardly disguised underneath a way-too-tight black T-shirt. In fact, tanned and svelte co-star Greg Kinnear, who's sitting next to Gervais during a roundtable interview at the Four Seasons hotel, looks like a super model by comparison.
While Gervais isn't likely to be courting more offers to play a romantic lead (he's funny in the film, but he's hardly got the looks for the part), his comic skills make his first top-billed appearance a success. Gervais plays Dr. Bertram Pincus, an uptight, Scrooge-like dentist who's so misanthropic, he likes the fact that his patients are often too numb to speak. But when Pincus encounters some health problems, he has to make an emergency trip to the hospital where he wakes up to find out that he came close to dying during an operation. As a result, he can now see dead people, and his life takes an abrupt turn.
One of the ghosts who talks to him is a guy named Frank Herlihy (Kinnear), who'll only leave Pincus alone if he agrees to break up his widow Gwen's (Tea Leoni) marriage. Bertram acquiesces but not because he likes Frank. In fact, he can't stand him and ends up not only befriending Gwen but also the guy she plans to marry. As much as the movie's about a guy so mean-spirited he won't even hold the elevator for people, it also has a pretty big heart, something director David Koepp says was intentional.
"We were writing about a misanthrope, so you have to be nasty," explains Koepp (Secret Windows, Stir of Echoes). "But it's easy to go into too nasty and you can put people off. A misanthropic dentist is just too much fun. I looked at any ghost movie I could think of, and the ones that seemed the most effective were the ones before the advent of advanced technology. You know, films like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, where dissolves were the most sophisticated technique. Ghost stories give you a very solid platform about love and loss and longing, and from there you tell your story. We had a broad premise and wanted very subtle execution."
For that, Koepp turned to Gervais, whom he says helped develop the character with his own ideas.
"Ricky doesn't have any self-consciousness, and it's a real gift," Kinnear says of Gervais. "His subtlety needed to be used entirely to flesh out his character."
Ultimately, the film's a throwback to the romantic comedies of yesteryear. It's set in Manhattan, but there's no sex in the city, and it's more about developing character and delivering good dialogue Ð something that Gervais, himself a master who's delivered two great-if-short-lived TV comedies with The Office and Extras, found appealing.
"It looked like me on the page when I first read it," he says. "And I've read lots of scripts and turned them down because I was busy. This is the best script I've read in five years. I always loved those wisecrackers who laughed in the face of adversity and it didn't do them any good. That's the important thing. They're still the loser. Groucho Marx, Woody Allen and Bob Hope. They might be getting these things off their chest, but they're still losing. I like that about Pincus. I felt sorry for him as well. He's a man who wants order, but he's missing out on something and he knows that. That always appeals to me. Comedy plus is what I call it."