Ghost Town - Ricky Gervais, Téa Leoni & Greg Kinnear

When I sat down in the cinema to watch Ricky Gervais make his debut as a Hollywood leading man in the fantasy comedy Ghost Town, I was ready to squirm with embarrassment – and not in a good way.

Gervais has been excruciatingly funny, of course, on British TV, but could he cut it in a leading role on the big screen? And could his brand of humour make the leap across the Atlantic and survive intact in the world of big-budget American moviemaking – or would the creator of David Brent and Andy Millman plummet and end up a sorry, soggy mess? As Ghost Town began, I was preparing to cringe at Gervais himself, for a change, and not at one of his characters.

I needn’t have worried. Gervais is fabulous.

Ghost Town - Ricky Gervais as Dr Bertram Pincus

It helps that in Ghost Town he’s playing a character well within his comfort zone – or, rather, his discomfort zone – another hopeless social misfit. Bertram Pincus, an expat Brit working as a dentist in New York, is a crabby curmudgeon, a peevish loner who has no interest in other people. From his perspective, dentistry is the ideal profession: sitting in the dentist’s chair with their gobs wide open, his patients can’t talk to him.

Bertram’s shield of misanthropy develops a chink, however, after he goes into hospital for a routine colonoscopy and wakes from the operation to discover that he can now see ghosts. (He belatedly learns that he died for seven minutes during the op.) And these ghosts are pushy, needy folk who won’t leave him alone. The dead, it appears, have a lot of unfinished business.

His principal tormentor is Greg Kinnear’s debonair Frank, who cheated on his wife, Téa Leoni’s archaeologist Gwen, while he was alive but now wants Bertram’s help to break-up her impending marriage to human rights lawyer Richard (Billy Campbell). Despite the fact that his people skills are zilch, and despite the fact that Gwen is clearly way out of his league when it comes to attractiveness, Bertram decides that the best way to accomplish Frank’s project is to woo her himself…

Ghost Town - Ricky Gervais & Téa Leoni

Gervais as a romantic lead?!? And in a glossy Hollywood comedy opposite the gorgeous Leoni, come off it!  Podgy Brits don’t do that sort of thing. Even Hugh Grant didn’t exactly cover himself with glory when he tried to reproduce his usual stammering shtick in the US in Mickey Blue Eyes. But Gervais, squat, dough-faced Ricky, unexpectedly pulls it off.

He’s aided by the nimble playing of his co-stars and by the script. Co-written by director David Koepp, screenwriter of such blockbusters as War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it has fun with the supernatural stuff (which recalls the 1937 comedy Topper, in which Cary Grant and Constance Bennett’s mischievous ghosts shake up the life of a stuffy banker) and, just as importantly, manages to keep on the right side of slushiness and sentimentality.

Ghost Town is undeniably cosier than The Office or Extras – the film’s emphasis on Bertram’s gradual redemption is pure Hollywood – but Gervais’s dry-as-a-bone delivery and brilliant comic timing prevent things getting too soppy. And when it comes to the comedy of embarrassment, he’s in his element, dishing out his squirm-inducing patter until the viewers’ toes curl in exquisite agony.