Death is ever present at the Toronto International Film Festival, both in the movies and in the eyes of the patrons dragging themselves to 9 a.m. screenings after a night of partying. Plenty of films treat the subject seriously -- you are never far from an indie drama in which someone mourns someone else's death -- but it's played for laughs quite a bit, too.
Ghost Town does the best job of it so far, neatly toying with the Sixth Sense model and finding plenty of comedy in people who see dead people. It stars Ricky Gervais as Bertram Pincus, a curmudgeonly dentist who, after a near-death experience, finds that he can see and hear the many ghosts who wander Manhattan. The comic twist: He hates people, dead or alive, and has no interest in helping anyone finish their unfinished business.
His most persistent dead acquaintance is Frank (Greg Kinnear), an adulterous jerk who wants to prevent his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni), from remarrying. Pincus agrees to interrupt her new relationship solely because he has a crush on her himself, and that's good enough for Frank.
There's an awful lot going on here -- fulfilling dead people's requests, breaking up a romance, and learning to love humanity comprises a busy agenda for one character, and Ghost Town could stand some trimming and toning. But it's often hilarious, too, primarily because of Gervais' fine-tuned snark and misanthropy. If the film is little more than his attempt to break out of the "cult following" category and find mainstream American success, more power to him. He deserves it, and Ghost Town is an auspicious start.
Ghost Town's premise is supernatural but reasonably familiar to filmgoers. Somewhat more bizarre is Dean Spanley, a wonderfully charming and whimsical comedy about an Anglican priest who believes he is the reincarnation of a dog. A New Zealand production, the film is set in England near the turn of the last century, a time when manners and social graces were all-important, and when a man could say "Poppycock!" and truly mean it. A well-to-do bachelor named Fisk (Jeremy Northam) is more open-minded than most of his contemporaries, and he finds that a local minister, Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), when plied with a certain rare and expensive brandy, will speak freely of his memories of being a canine before he was born into his current existence.
Fisk's father, a stodgy old poop played by the twinkly-eyed Peter O'Toole, has no patience for such apostate ideas, though he does agree with the Dean on one subject: Dogs elevate a man's view of himself, while cats reduce it. The elder Fisk has no patience for most things, actually, and takes a pragmatic view of life and death, even when it touches his own family. (He lost a son in the Second Boer War.) His belief is that if something has gone to the trouble of happening, then it must have been inevitable, and so why get worked up about it?
The movie is relentlessly witty, full of Oscar Wilde-ish dialogue and smoothly played comedy that never gives way to farce or buffoonery. It also boasts another lovely performance by Peter O'Toole, not to mention Sam Neill as the matter-of-fact Dean Spanley and Jeremy Northam as, basically, the straight man to the more colorful characters surrounding him. Moreover, it's a fine film for people who love dogs, which by all rights should be everyone.
Last we come to Guy Ritchie, whose fascination with violence, mayhem, and death need hardly be reiterated here. You'd think that being married to Madonna, Ritchie would have picked up on the value of occasionally reinventing oneself. But no, he keeps making the same movie, the same ultra-cool exercises in British gangster violence and stylish criminal shenanigans, and RockNRolla is the latest entry. Then again, the one time he did try something different, the result was Swept Away, so maybe he's wise to stay in his comfort zone.
At any rate, RockNRolla inspires strong feelings of "meh" in me. (This is in contrast to many, many other members of the press who saw it and flat-out hated it.) It's not nearly as clever, funny, or stylish as Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, nor is it as good as Gangster No. 1 or Sexy Beast or many of the other gritty British gangster capers that have come around since the last time Ritchie did his thing. It feels like a rerun -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing, after all. People watch reruns all the time.
Tom Wilkinson is the film's best asset, playing the malevolent head of the London underworld who has made a fortune in real estate and money-lending. Surrounding him are the usual assortment of crooks, con men, and junkies, plus MacGuffins like a stolen painting and a missing rock star. It's amusing enough to see these low-lifes steal from and double-cross one another, but Ritchie's usual bag of cinematic tricks (slow-mos, freeze-frames, flashbacks, etc.) isn't sufficient to breathe new life into this old formula. Most of the characters are only mildly colorful, and the cast members, game though they may be, are just along for the ride.