Hollywood daring is invisible in well-done ‘Ghost Town'

There's a reason Hollywood dominates the international movie industry: Nobody produces predictable, middlebrow entertainment with such polish or sparkle. “Ghost Town” embodies the best of this kind of filmmaking: It's a smooth journey across familiar territory to a safe emotional harbor, always professional and occasionally delightful.

Does that sound like small praise? It didn't seem so at this month's Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie remained in memory longer than more ambitious but ineptly executed projects.

Charles Dickens, master of mass appeal fiction, would have been at home with “Town.” In fact, he inspired it: “A Christmas Carol” also took place in a great city in winter and used ghosts to reconnect a bitter, wealthy man to the mass of humanity for which he feels contempt.

The Scrooge in this version is acerbic New York dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), who flatlines briefly during a routine operation. (Writers David Koepp and John Kamps zing hospitals wittily.) He can now see all the phantoms who have unfinished business with those left on Earth, and they pursue him literally through the door of his apartment.

The most persistent, a shady entrepreneur named Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), wants Pincus to break up the engagement of his widow (Téa Leoni) to a humorless, socially conscious attorney (Billy Campbell). Pincus, seeking only the peace of solitude, agrees to woo Gwen Herlihy until she has second thoughts about the attorney. You won't be surprised to learn he falls in love with her.

Koepp, who also directed, doesn't give us time to get fidgety. Scenes are quick and crisp, often punctuated by a last snarky remark from Pincus. (Gervais – creator of the British/original version of “The Office” – is never funnier than when he's sour, yet he shows a sweet side as well.)

Romantic comedies often fail to flesh out the leads equally – the woman usually gets short shrift – but we feel we know Gwen. She has a job (museum archaeologist) and a full life beyond her romantic needs. Leoni has seldom been so appealing, and Gwen's persistence in trying to establish a relationship with the eccentric Pincus endears her to us.

Even Frank has unexpected complications. He seems like a philandering creep at first, interfering in Gwen's life because he's jealous of her chance for happiness. Yet he mellows as the film goes on and benefits from Pincus' transformation, as if thawed out by reflected sunshine.

I still hope to see a revolutionary Hollywood comedy in which a handsome, successful man keeps the door to his heart open until a pudgy, irritable, self-centered woman walks through. But until that miraculous day, “Ghost Town” will tide me over.