Brit funny man Ricky Gervais is known for his brutal humor, as the controversial host of the Golden Globes, as the creator/writer/star of the original (2001 British version) “The Office,” and for his outspoken stances on atheism and animal rights. On his comedy styling, he never holds back and everyone is equally vulnerable to his verbal barbs.
For a man who has very firm beliefs on the after-life (lack thereof in his case), Gervais has taken on the subject more than once in his career. In David Koepp’s GHOST TOWN (2008), Ricky is perfectly cast as the anti-social, easily annoyed, and cynical dentist Bertram Pincus. He’s the sort that will go out of his way to avoid social pleasantries to a dishonest and unkind effort. He goes through a life-altering experience when he comes out of a colonoscopy seeing ghosts. Turns out, Bertram discovers he was dead for seven minutes during the procedure and this has left him in a unique position where he is the only one who can see and chat with the dead.
Here is an example of Dr. Pincus’s typical difficulty in being ‘sociable’ with others, as he answers the pre-colonoscopy questionnaire:
Hospital Nurse: “Date of birth?”
Bertram Pincus: “Why?”
Hospital Nurse: “What day were you born?”
Bertram Pincus: “No, I understood the question. Why do you need to know that?”
Hospital Nurse: “Let’s leave it blank. Weight?”
Bertram Pincus: “Last night or this morning?”
Hospital Nurse: “You pick.”
Bertram Pincus: “Hundred eighty-two pounds.”
Hospital Nurse: “Number of alcoholic beverages consumed per week?”
Bertram Pincus: “Why do you need to know that?”
Hospital Nurse: “Well, they want to know.”
Bertram Pincus: “Well, I’m sure “they” want to know a lot of things, but I don’t want my intimate details auctioned off to the highest bidder, willy-nilly.”
Hospital Nurse: “I’ll put zero. Marital status?”
Bertram Pincus: “Pass.”
Hospital Nurse: “Profession?”
Bertram Pincus: “Irrelevant.”
Hospital Nurse: “Food allergies?”
Bertram Pincus: “I’m not going to be eating here.”
Hospital Nurse: “Are you allergic to sticking plaster?”
Bertram Pincus: “What a ludicrous question. I’m not answering any more of these, really.”
Hospital Nurse: “Do you smoke?”
Bertram Pincus: “Stop it.”
Hospital Nurse: “Do you wear dentures?”
Bertram Pincus: “Madame, listen.”
Hospital Nurse: “When was the last time you ate?”
Bertram Pincus: “A pertinent question at last. Yesterday, lunchtime. Thanks for asking. I had a tuna sandwich. Toast was soggy, but…”
Hospital Nurse: “Did you drink the laxative solution?”
Bertram Pincus: “Yes.”
Hospital Nurse: “Did it work?”
Bertram Pincus: “It was as advertised.”
Hospital Nurse: “Did you evacuate your bowls?”
Bertram Pincus: “I drank copious amounts of drain-cleaning fluid. What followed was fait accompli.”
Hospital Nurse: “Sir, what I’m asking is if you were…”
Bertram Pincus: “I shat. Okay? Good. Again and again. It was like a terrorist attack down there in the darkness and the chaos, the running and the screaming, okay?”
Hospital Nurse: “Fine with me.”
Bertram Pincus: “Good.”
Bertram Pincus: “Gross invasion of my privacy, this.”
Bertram hates people, dead or alive, so this poses an issue when he meets his neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni), who is the polar opposite. Gwen is grieving the recent loss of her husband (Greg Kinnear as Frank) but her true nature is energetically bubbling with life.
Frank is a sleazeball of a husband/ghost who cheated on his wife when he was alive and feels threatened now that his wife is potentially getting serious with a new man (Billy Campbell as Richard). Selfishly, he asks Bertram to get close to Gwen to help thwart her moving on, while threatening to have a multitude of ghosts all over NYC pester him if he doesn’t comply.
This film is essentially a formula romcom, but with a ghostly twist. As we watch Bertram fall for Gwen, we see him embrace kindness and shed his lack of humanity. He learns the life lesson in the beauty of unselfishly helping others.
I can’t help but think that Ricky Gervais is secretly Irish. There’s a joke amongst my Irish rooted family that we look at death differently. Irish are known for embracing death, sometimes through poetry and song or via dark humor, as a celebration of life. We are unusually comfortable with the topic.
Not that Gervais wrote this screenplay. Director David Koepp (a popular screenwriter of modern classics like Jurassic Park) co-wrote this with John Kamps. This role suits Gervais well. As we watch Pincus evolve into a better human being, Gervais showcases his knack for making audiences laugh as easily as cry. The irony is of course that atheist Ricky Gervais is perfect for this heavenly role that focuses on the after-life head on.
With other projects since this role, Gervais has returned recently to a theme that tackles life after death. No ghosts or heavenly assertions, Gervais’s “After Life” (2 seasons, 2019 – 2020) on Netflix explores the life of a man in mourning, whose singular joy came from his recently deceased wife. He dwells in her memories, through flashbacks and home videos, and thoughts of suicide are frequent. He clings to his bitter, anti-social wit with a myriad of colorful characters that intersect in his life. Yet gradually he begins to see that life may be worth living when he becomes invested in their lives with small acts of kindness. This is especially true in his loyalty to his dog.
With both of his roles in GHOST TOWN (2008) and “After Life,” Ricky Gervais displays a masterful ability to make us laugh and deeply touch our hearts, while centering on a topic that many find typically not very entertaining. Death is usually taboo in comedy, if addressed in earnest. Which he manages to walk that fine line of death in sincerity and comedic lines that induces snorting out loud. No easy task. As the best and generally most controversial comics often do, a brutally honest approach, with a mirror held up to society, is often the funniest.
*This piece was written in memory of Kathleen Feindt-Bailey (1960 – 2020), the recently passed wife of Steve Bailey, a friend, fellow blogger, and aficionado of classic comedy. See his work at: https://moviemovieblogblogii.wordpress.com/ or the The Life Goes On Blogathon, Hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlogII.
7 thoughts on “Celebrating Life, Death, and Ricky Gervais in GHOST TOWN (2008)”
Good read, thanks Kellee! I’ve always found Rickie intense & entertaining in a Don Rickles kind of way. When in character he’s quite hilarious – one can only imagine what a behind the scenes experience is like with him around.
Thank you! I do find him brilliantly hilarious. His style is brutally honest. Refreshing. He’s an animal advocate so he must be a good person, I figure. Have you watched his Netflix show, “After Life”? It’s sweetly poignant, and VERY funny.
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Kellee, thank you so much for contributing this — the movie sounds terrific in that Ricky Gervais style! My son informs me that Gervais now has a Netflix series titled AFTER LIFE that is in a similar vein. Sadly, I can relate all too well to these entries!
Great film. A few really unexpectedly beautiful moments and a wonderfully abrupt ending.
Thank you for this laugh-filled and lovely contribution to the blogathon. My son has watched a couple of episodes of “After Life” and says I’d really identify with it, so I’ll get we’ll be doing a Gervais marathon soon!
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I recently caught a new-to-me Ricky Gervais series called, “Extras” (2005 – 2007). I don’t know how I missed this Brit sitcom because it is packed with celebs and is hilarious!
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