As is the case with most great filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen produce only two classifications of pictures. There’s Major Coen, like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, and there’s Minor Coen, such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Big Lebowski. (And then there’s the strange case of Raising Arizona, which looks Minor but is Major every step of the way.)Burn After Reading is decidedly Minor Coen, which means that it’s still more enjoyable than a lot of the product out there. With George Clooney and Brad Pitt in full-on clown mode, the film feels as much of an insignificant riff as those Ocean heist flicks, but with the Coens at the helm, it features a pitch-black comic sensibility that will either attract or repel moviegoers. The memoirs of a recently fired CIA wonk (John Malkovich) accidentally fall into the hands of a pair of idiotic gym employees (Pitt and Frances McDormand). Their awkward attempts at blackmail produce a vortex of misunderstandings that also ensnares the ex-CIA suit’s aloof wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Clooney), a bundle of energy who enjoys jogging, womanizing and building stuff in his basement (his creation yields one of the film’s biggest laughs and will be at the top of most women’s Christmas wish lists). The three guys are more fun to watch than the two gals, although the film is stolen by J.K. Simmons (Juno’s dad) as a thoroughly confused CIA bigwig. Still, while the picture offers strikingly off-kilter characterizations and a number of huge guffaws, it won’t remain in the memory like most of the siblings’ output. See Burn After Reading, but then expect to Forget After Seeing.
Given the dearth of quality romantic comedies produced by the major studios -- these days, it’s up to the independent outfits to provide them (tag In Search of a Midnight Kiss as Exhibit A) -- it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that Ghost Town manages to buck the odds. Certainly, the high-concept storyline makes it sound as dreary as a Kate Hudson vehicle. (Speaking of which, Hudson’s own rom-com, My Best Friend’s Girl, opened the same day as Ghost Town, but without the benefit of advance critics’ screenings.) Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), a dour dentist who avoids interacting with people at all costs, suddenly finds himself surrounded by dead
people. That’s because he himself died for seven minutes while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, and this established an open line of communication with restless ghosts still hovering around Manhattan. Chief among them is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), who demands that Bertram prevent his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying a human rights lawyer (Billy Campbell).
Ghost Town is given a significant boost by the presence of Gervais, whose caustic wit and no-nonsense demeanor provide the picture with more of an edge than it would have received with a more conventional leading man at the helm. But the picture surprises in other ways as well, thanks to unexpected tweaks in the script co-written by John Kamps and director David Koepp (best known for penning such blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and the latest Indiana Jones installment). Kinnear’s ethereal hubby isn’t exactly the dashing nice guy he initially seems, while the emotionally torn widow played by Leoni (who really needs to appear in more movies) isn’t just a pawn to be moved around by the three men in her life but instead takes control of the situations presented before her. Charming and unassuming, Ghost Town offers enough in the way of laughs to raise anyone’s spirits.