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Fatwah / September 22, 2008
By Eileen Jones

Gervais confronts his mortality in laxative form

Jeez, it just doesn’t pay to get your hopes up, you know? You see a preview for a movie about a guy who hates people and then sees ghosts and hates them too, and he’s played by Ricky Gervais, and you naturally think: hot damn! For once they got it right. What could be more soothing at this moment in our history, what could be a better match for our mood of frenzied loathing than this little celebration of abhorrence? But it’s all a scam. It’s sickening how they lure you in with Gervais’ porcine blandishments!

Oh sure, it starts out fine. It’s all Gervais at first, and one cannot but admire him for his sheer ice-cold accuracy in portraying human beings as pathetic grotesques, showing no mercy. He can reduce the most hardened viewer to squirming discomfort in two minutes. Here he’s playing the full spectrum of detestation, as a man who is himself dreadful and can also see how dreadful everybody else is. For Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who can suddenly see dead people, the supposed cosmic wonder of this development means just one thing: a lot more people to avoid.

This pedestrian reaction nicely undercuts our assumption that death makes people more interesting. Good one, writer-director David Koepp! Turns out “death doesn’t make you smarter” and provides no big insight into the afterlife or anything else. People’s souls on the Other Side are just as tiresome as they are on this side. They’re just like live people but even more annoyingly monomaniacal and less able to do anything effective about their monomania.

Uninvited ghosts

So far, so promising. Then the dirty tide of plot washes in: the noodgiest of the ghosts, Frank (Greg Kinnear) compels Bertram to save his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) from what he regards as a disastrous new suitor. Bertram sets himself up as a rival suitor and pretty soon falls in love with Gwen himself….Yuh-huh. Well, plausibility ain’t everything in movies. So, slogging on: in order to win her, Bertram has to start empathizing with people, and helping the ghosts solve their noodgy problems, which in turn solves the live people’s problems, and finally he learns that, living or dead, everybody’s really, really nice, once you get to know them, and blah blah blah right down the crapper.

It’s insulting, is what it is. They pull you in with some bracing misanthropy and ghosts, and then unleash a rotten, messy romantic comedy on you. (Can no one rid us of this disgusting genre?) They even give Gervais’ character a back-story to explain his hatred of people. It’s the old one about a disappointment in love, which has been getting steadily less convincing since Dickens got by with it in A Christmas Carol a hundred-fifty years ago. I think, by now, we’re ready to face a few hard truths. People are extremely, eminently hate-able. Always have been. We go out of our way to be, we build up whole political and economic and social systems designed to favor, reward, and reproduce the Hateful Bastard. And when I say “we,” I mean “they.” I’ve been in the struggling anti-Bastard camp for years, and yes, the pay’s terrible, thanks for asking.

At first the movie seems like it might be headed toward some sort of semi-believable solution, suggesting that although Bertram Pincus is never going to be a grinning people-hugger, he might be happy if he could meet someone else who’s weird and self-sufficient and suits him. But the sloppy romantic comedy conventions are too strong. It’s not enough that two people get together and aren’t immediately repulsed again—that’s a miracle in itself—no, there must be fifty miracles, and every person and ghost must hug, and every rock and tree must rejoice, all bathed together in syrupy golden light. The ending’s like The Simpsons’ version of a Disneyland parade, with the shouted slogan, “Hurray for Everything!!” And these days, nobody needs that kind of aggravation.

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