If Frank had known he was going to die, he would've planned things a bit better.
He could've entered his time of death into his Blackberry: "2 p.m., Tuesday, get hit by bus." He might've been less of an obnoxious jerk to his colleagues. He should've treated his wife (Gwen) a little better. And it's a good bet that, at the very least, he would not have bought that West Village apartment for his mistress.
But the curious thing about death is that none of us really know when we're going to go. And, thus, Frank was woefully unprepared.
"Ohhhhh ... not now!" are the first words out of Frank's post-mortem mouth.
He'll elaborate, if you ask him. Frank's about as talkative a dead person as there ever was, doomed to haunt New York City for either a) all eternity, or b) until he figures out where all the peaceful, happy dead people went to. Until then, he stalks Manhattan in the tux he was wearing at the time of his demise, desperately trying to get a signal on his Blackberry.
It's a lonely death, for the living can't see or hear him. They do, however, tend to sneeze when they walk through him. Who knew ghosts were an allergen?
Then one day, Frank runs into a flustered fellow who, lo and behold, can see him. He sees all of New York's ghostly populace, in fact, which makes him a celebrity among the Big Apple's death set. They follow him like paparazzi on the heels of Miley Cyrus, peppering him with requests: Tell my kids to stop fighting. Look for a stuffed squirrel underneath the car seat. Get my motorcycle-riding wife to wear a helmet.
It's The Sixth Sense all over again, only this fellow—Bertram Pincus, DDS—can barely tolerate living people, much less dead ones. (He likes being a dentist because people who have their mouths stuffed with cotton swabs are less inclined to talk.) So this sudden influx of yammering ghosts—precipitated by a prolonged near-death experience on an operating table—is deeply unsettling.Frank quickly sizes up Bertram and makes him a deal: Do one favor for me, and I'll get all these simpering specters to leave you alone forever. The favor? Frank wants Bertram to scrape Gwen's new fiancé, Richard, out of Gwen's life like so much plaque.
Albert Einstein (on a poster, not his ghost) explicitly tells us in Ghost Town that, "Only a life lived for others is worth living." This quotation serves as the film's moral crux, and the script is designed to lead our two obnoxious protagonists—Frank and Bertram—to that simple but important conclusion.
Bertram agrees to Frank's proposal, but it's not long before he runs into problems. For one thing, Richard actually seems to be a pretty cool guy. For another, he's a human-rights attorney who travels throughout the third world helping the poor.
A bit more about Bertram: He's a man who spends most of the film utterly disregarding everyone around him. He is a self-centered boor who, at first, can't even be bothered to hold the elevator door open for Gwen. As he gets to know her—and starts to fall for her—Bertram does flash a bit of charm, but he reserves it just for her, rudely rejecting ghosts' pathetic entreaties at every turn. Eventually, though, he wises up and begins to right longstanding wrongs, which allows the film's spirits to leave New York with smiles and flashes of light.
Bertram discovers that it's OK—even rewarding—to be nice to folks and, when he helps Frank set his own ghostly feet on a track toward his "eternal home," Frank returns the favor by telling Bertram a secret—a small story, but one that could hold the key to Gwen's heart.
Back to Richard: He's a man who needs no such encouragement to follow Einstein's suggestion (and, incidentally, the Bible's directive) to live for others. He tells Bertram of his work and encourages the dentist to come and help him with his third-world endeavors, where a dentist could do a lot of good. When a guy needs CPR, Richard's ready and willing to give him another shot at life.
Though Ghost Town is largely about the afterlife, the movie is pretty noncommittal when it comes to defining ghosts' final destination. These spirits are apparently trapped on earth until their loved ones get a bit of closure, and once they receive that, they fade away, going somewhere ... nice. Heaven? Maybe. But we're never really told.
If there is a heaven awaiting good little ghosties, there's certainly no indication anyone might be destined for hell. Frank, who seems to have tallied quite a few unconfessed sins in his lifetime, does seem a bit penitent at the end, but we get the sense that he "moves on" because Gwen has also, emotionally, moved on. You'll not hear any musings on forgiveness of sins or predestination or salvation.
That said, there are a few nods to religion worth mentioning: Frank tries to convince Bertram that Richard, despite his do-good ways, might be evil incarnate—saying the devil, if he came down to earth, would work at Amnesty International and give away all his money to the poor. "Wouldn't he lose the title, the devil?" Bertram poses. When Richard tries to save a character's life, he hollers to the heavens, "Lord, spare this man!"—a plea met with exasperation by both Frank and Bertram.
Bertram quizzes a Hindu co-worker on how to "extract" information from someone, presuming that an Indian Hindu would know more about torture techniques than "we Christians." We also hear just a touch about the Egyptians' and Greeks' burial practices and their philosophies of life after death.
Hail starts falling when it appears that Bertram might not learn the movie's important lesson. Frank refers to himself as Bertram's "guardian angel," and asks him if he'd like to help Frank earn his wings.
Gwen, an archaeologist who's on professional-but-intimate terms with a 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummy, encourages Bertram to feel the corpse's papery skin, pressing her hand on Bertram's to show him where to touch. She also mentions that a critical part of the mummy's anatomy was removed during the mummification ceremony. That part is kept in a large jar, prompting crude jokes.
Gwen wears a snug, revealing dress at one point. We hear quite a bit about Frank's infidelity. (We never see his mistress.) One of Bertram's patients launches into a long-winded story about her son asking her where babies come from, but Bertram slaps a tooth mold into her mouth before she can finish. Bertram mentions that his last girlfriend ran off with a guy from Portland. One of the ghosts haunting Bertram is naked. (We don't see any explicit nudity.) We learn that Frank had a shoe fetish. Frank asks Bertram if he uses "hookers." When Richard mentions the fact that he helps homeless prostitutes, Bertram asks if he's still involved in "the sex trade." Gwen relates a memory involving she, Frank and a drink known as a "Screaming Orgasm."
More than one character gets hit by a bus. An air conditioner nearly drops on somebody. Bertram hints to one of his patients that unless he divulges some information to him, he (Bertram) will torture him with his assorted sharp dental instruments. He does not follow through on this threat, but close-ups of dental tools during the opening credits do make the things look positively torturous.
A large dog jerks Gwen off her feet. Bertram jokingly tells Gwen his last girlfriend died from auto cannibalism—which means she would've allegedly eaten herself.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words. A half-dozen s-words. Jesus' name is misused twice; God's about 10 times. (Twice, God's name is paired with "d--n.") "A--," "b--tard" and "h---" also get screen time.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Quite a few people are regularly shown drinking. Bertram has a habit of ordering a "sapphire martini, up, with olives" (Frank's favorite drink), even though he'd rather have a Pimm's Cup (Gwen's favorite drink).
Bertram "encourages" one of his patients to talk by using 700 milliliters of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). "It's not fatal until 750," he explains. He later asks a colleague if he'd prescribe some drugs to "help him sleep"—actually, deal with his crumbling would-be relationship with Gwen. "I'm not even going to ask for morphine," he hints.
Other Negative Elements
Bertram starts the film out with some sort of bowel problem, and we see him chug a glass of laxative and wait for the medicine to work. (It does, and he dashes into the bathroom.) He and a nurse have a relatively detailed conversation about what the laxative triggered. Gwen picks up a bag of dog excrement. Bertram jokes that "human rights" are good—except for the Chinese. "They're the odd ones out," he says. Frank tells a damaging lie to Bertram.
Ghost Town earns its PG-13 rating. It's profane, occasionally violent and cracks jokes that rely on a critical piece of male mummy anatomy.
And like almost all Hollywood ghost stories, Ghost Town is also wildly inaccurate when it comes to theology, eternity and what happens in those first few days after somebody dies.
But unlike Gwen's ancient mummy or six-month-dead husband, Ghost Town still has a warm, beating heart—which it wears on its sleeve, incidentally.
Sometimes it seems we live in an era where, more and more, we isolate ourselves from each other. There are days we'd rather talk to voice mail than a real person. Can we text instead of talk? So much the better. We don't speak to strangers, don't meet our neighbors. Not too long ago, I read a story about a 78-year-old man who was hit by a car while crossing the street: The man was left lying in the street, alone, until medical help arrived. Though at least four folks dialed 911, pedestrians did little more than stare.
Ghost Town, a story that takes place in a crowded city full of lonely people, reminds viewers that caring for others and getting involved is the right thing to do. It's a simple lesson we'd all do well to learn. A lesson that could have been taught without f-words and crude jokes.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Ricky Gervais as Bertram Pincus; Téa Leoni as Gwen; Greg Kinnear as Frank