Friday, March 1, 2013

Ghost Town -- life and unfinished business

Director: David Koepp, 2008 (PG-13)

You gotta love a romantic comedy where the male lead is a misanthropic British dentist. Bertrum Pincus (Ricky Gervais, The Invention of Lying) is no God’s gift to women. No hunk, he is rude and obnoxious. He keeps his Manhattan dental office tidy and his next-door apartment even tidier. Neither has even a hint of personality. He wants to be alone, avoiding people. Such a life, he thinks, will prevent pain like his own shot of novocaine.

Indeed, life is a central theme, in one way or another.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The movie opens with another man, Frank (Greg Kinnear), talking on the phone to his wife. Frank is a philandering jerk, but one that is about to die. When he is killed, he finds himself still trapped in New York, seeing but never being seen. He is lost amidst the millions of other lost souls who are invisibly walking the streets of New York City. Enter Dr. Pincus. Through an accident during a routine colonoscopy, he lay dead for 7 minutes. As he tells Frank, “I was dead and now they brought me back. I can …” He is the only person in the Big Apple who can see the dead. Frank replies, “The dead have a lot of unfinished business, which is why we’re still here.”

For Frank, his unfinished business is Gwen (Tea Leoni, Flirting with Disaster), his widow who is an Egyptologist. She is preparing to get remarried, to Richard (Billy Campbell), a philanthropic lawyer. Frank wants Pincus to stop their impending marriage. What is Pincus’ incentive? Frank will stop him being pestered (haunted?) by all the other NYC ghosts that seek their own closure to their own unfinished business.

It turns out the Gwen lives in the same apartment building as Pincus. She even knows him vaguely – as someone who is rude! But a romantic comedy has to pair up two people, and we expect one of them at least to change. In this case, we know Pincus must, as Gwen does not like him as he is.

The comedy comes from Gervais’ sharply biting and sarcastic tongue complemented by Leoni’s perfect timing. Together, they bring to life what could have been a flop if performed by other actors. Kinnear’s charm is hidden here beneath a caustic exterior. But the movie has a heart and offers some life-lessons without being too obvious and preachy.

The first lesson is on life itself. Gwen tells Pincus, in one dinner scene, “We just get the one life, you know. Just one. You can’t live someone else’s or think it’s more important just because it’s more dramatic. What happens matters. Maybe only to us, but it matters.” Though Pincus doesn’t seem to need this advice, we probably do.

Too many of us subscribe to Andy Warhol’s vision of our own 15 minutes of fame. We want to be rich and famous, making a difference. Or we look at other’s and wish we could inhabit their lives. Gwen’s advice contradicts these precepts. Life is unique. We are all individuals, distinct, different. God told his prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer. 1”5). What is true for him, is true for all of us. God has formed each of us for our very own story. History is made up of many individual stories. We must choose to live out our own stories, not seeking to be like others.

Pincus, though, doesn’t want to live for anyone but himself. He lives at the center of his own universe, without regard for anyone else. It takes another dentist, Dr. Prashar (Aasif Mandvi), and the dead to convince him that living for self has little value. Living for others becomes the central thesis.

Of course, this is eminently biblical. Pincus is the poster child for Proverbs 18:1: “An unfriendly man pursues selfish ends.” Selfish ambition is mentioned in the context of commands against sin both by Paul (Gal. 5:20) and James (3:14, 16). In contrast, Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Selflessness is at the very heart of the gospel, and Jesus is its example. He lived and died for others, regardless of cost to him.

There is a twist in the unfinished business, but this sub-plot offers us a closing thought. We all have unfinished business. We close each day with our to-do lists unfinished. We go to sleep with relationships unfinished. But we “do not know what a day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1). Tomorrow may not come for some. So, let’s make the most of life. Let’s love our families. Let’s live for others.

We know we will certainly die with some unfinished business. But we should try to minimize this, at least in our most important relationships.

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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