Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni, and Greg Kinnear in Ghost TownGHOST TOWN

Maybe you need to have seen a lot of bad romantic comedies, or bad movies involving ghosts, or bad romantic comedies involving ghosts, to appreciate just how good Ghost Town is. Maybe not, of course, especially considering how hysterical Ricky Gervais is in the movie's lead. But if you sit through enough dreary Hollywood outings of this sort, it doesn't take long to realize that something pretty special is happening here.

In outline, Ghost Town is indistinguishable from other eye-rollingly contrived, spectrally-themed rom-coms: After dying (albeit for only seven minutes) himself, dyspeptic dentist Bertram Pincus (Gervais) finds himself able to see dead people, one of whom (Greg Kinnear) seeks his help in sabotaging the new engagement of his former wife (Téa Leoni). Needless to say, Pincus ends up falling for her himself, yet while all the expected, formulaic hurdles are duly accounted for - including the inevitable "Who are you talking to?" confusion and the maudlin, sad-bastard music when the dentist fears losing the woman of his dreams - the movie turns out to be charming, witty, and really, really funny.

It was a great idea to cast Gervais, with his priceless, slow-burn irritation and withering (and often self-directed) sarcasm, and maybe an even better one to cast Leoni, whose infectious, radiant good humor and intelligence make her an ideal sparring partner. But director/co-writer David Koepp's entertainment is rare in that everyone on-screen - chief among them Kinnear, Billy Campbell, Aasif Mandvi, and Kristen Wiig - appears to be working in top form, and the script is filled with belly laughs. (Regarding the clumsy, subsequently fired anesthesiologist who may have caused Gervais' predicament, Wiig earns Ghost Town's biggest cackle when telling him about the hospital's "strict three-strikes policy.")

What's perhaps most amazing, though, is that the film's requisite sentimentality is honestly moving, and its final shot, preceded by a heartbreaker of an 11-word closer, is about as satisfying an ending as modern romantic comedies have given us in ages; you well up - and not for the first time in the film - without feeling like a sucker. Against all expectation, Ghost Town is one of the great movie surprises of the year. It makes genres that many of us have grown dead tired of feel newly, unexpectedly alive.


Samuel L. Jackson in Lakeview TerraceLAKEVIEW TERRACE

Halfway through the Neil LaBute-directed thriller Lakeview Terrace, in which cop-with-a-grudge Samuel L. Jackson makes suburban life hell for new neighbors Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, I began experiencing that depressing sensation that you occasionally get at the cineplex - the feeling that this movie you've been enjoying for so long is, in the end, actually going to suck. Thankfully, Lakeview Terrace never gets quite that bad, but it damned sure comes close. The film's first hour, as Jackson becomes more and more aggrieved by the arrival of the interracial couple next door, is edgy and suggestive, and the star's sardonic bullying is gratifyingly mean; you're simultaneously cowed by Jackson's hostility, and not-so-secretly wanting him to grow even more hostile, as the actor's contemptuous tirades and merciless stare-downs are richly entertaining. But the film eventually falls victim to contrivance and even utter ridiculousness, and while there are some effective creep-outs (especially in the late-film scene of Jackson and Wilson locking eyes while on their cell phones), Lakeview Terrace winds up all but nullifying the subtle effectiveness of its opening. It also gets docked points for obviousness and deck-stacking, particularly when we're informed that Wilson's hero/sap went to Berkeley on a lacrosse scholarship. Wasn't the mere casting of Patrick Wilson - who's just about the whitest actor in Hollywood - already more than enough?


Kate Hudson and Jason Biggs in My Best Friend's GirlMY BEST FRIEND'S GIRL

My Best Friend's Girl finds serial lothario and wanton scumbag Dane Cook hooking up with, and subsequently falling for, Kate Hudson, and I hated this supposed romantic comedy so much that I'm going to go ahead and give away the ending: He winds up with her. I know, I know... I was shocked, too. But if you find yourself enduring Howard Deutch's crass, bitterly unfunny movie, pay special attention to the stars' union during the climactic restaurant scene. In it, Cook and Hudson have the inevitable verbal battle that leads to their inevitable kiss, and we wait for the inevitable moment when the throngs of disrupted diners witness the spectacle and spontaneously applaud. And sure enough, Cook and Hudson receive their ovation. Watch the onlookers in this scene, though, because even though we hear the applause on the soundtrack, no one in that room is actually clapping. This editing-room addition - Deutch and company's apparent attempt at giving the audience exactly what is presumably demanded of them - is an unbelievably tacky and cynical moment in a movie that's everything Ghost Town isn't: witless, labored, shallow, gross, and exhausting. Plus, for those keeping track, My Best Friend's Girl stands as yet another god-awful entry in Cook's mostly regrettable filmography. There's a scene here in which a woman screams at Cook, "You suck!" and he replies, "You're right - I suck!" Finally, I thought. A moment of honesty.

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