Tuesday, December 30, 2008

DVDebuts: 2 misses that ought to have made it -- HAMLET 2 and GHOST TOWN

I love the films of Andrew Fleming (above) -- well, most of them -- while admitting that they are rarely as good as they could be. Watching them usually makes me happy, as they are so full of small delights and giggles rather than the flat-out (and often flat-footed) humor that buries so many of today's crass comedies. From 1994's Threesome (with Josh Charles, Stephen Baldwin and Lara Flynn Boyle at the top of their game) through the delightful Dick and last year's amiable, under-rated Nancy Drew, this writer/director keeps churning out charm and goofiness keyed to our changing (particularly in the political/social/sexual realm) times.

Now comes HAMLET 2, which sold big at Sundance and then bombed theatrically. Its trailer was poorly done and, I suspect, turned off many critics and filmgoers early on. Yet the actual film, while including everything we saw in the trailer, is a lot more of fun than expected. A major reason for this is the wonderful lead performance from Steve Coogan. This comedian already has his fan base, but because he gives such a rich, humane, sad (and funny) performance as a perpetual loser who keeps trying, he may have surprised some of those fans -- who are more used to him in smaller, nastier doses. Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady nail everything from drama teachers (and their gay/outsider students) to Arizona life as seen by those who hail from more urban realms. And fine support is provided by Catherine Keener, David Arquette and all the kids who play the students.

Another better-than-average writer/director is David Koepp (Stir of Echoes), who -- unlike Fleming -- has had his share of boffo hits over the past two decades (for his screenplays, at least): Death Becomes Her, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and the latest (and tiresome) Indiana Jones bore. Why his newest endeavor, GHOST TOWN, which he directed and co-wrote (with John Kamps), did not haul in a bigger audience is surprising, as there have not been many sophisticated comedies about of late -- especially one that has a low-key, almost-European quality about it.

Ghost Town is not top-tier material, although it does have its share of very funny moments, a clever premise (the connection between the living and the dead -- used for laughs, rather than the more oft-seen, half-baked scares), and a first-rate cast. Ricky Gervais gets his chance to be a leading man and handles it with surprisng aplomb. His leading lady is the too-little-seen Téa Leoni (above), and one of our most accomplished actors, the so-good-he-makes-it-look-easy Greg Kinnear, completes the triangle. The theme here, as in so many movies about the dead, is redemption, with special attention to the male need for adultery and the anger and grief this causes the female. Out of this come some rich moments of honest feeling which help coax the movie toward a cozy, pleasing resolution. Ghost Town ought to have been a mid-range hit, at least. Did its title lead audiences to imagine some sort of western? Whatever. Perhaps DVD will provide a more condusive venue at a cheaper price.

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