Ghost Town, David Koepp, 102 mins, 12A
Quiet Chaos, Antonello Grimaldi, 112 mins, 15

You can take the boy out of Slough ...but you can't put him in a shiny New York screwball comedy. Ricky, you should have a word with your agent

Now here's a funny thing. Two films open this week, both about death and mourning, both starring funny men out of their usual contexts, both advertised by posters showing the star sitting on a bench. As Harry Hill might say, what are the chances of that happening?

Come to think of it, Harry Hill might have made a better casting choice for David Koepp's comedy Ghost Town, as indeed would any exportable British comic: Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard, Sacha Baron Cohen, anyone other than Ricky Gervais. More than any comedian I can think of, Gervais's appeal depends on context. When he plays a self-created character such as David Brent or Andy Millman, he's in control of the role and the situation, and able to surround himself with supporting players that lend credibility to both.

Now, you can believe in Gervais as a white-collar worker in Slough, or an actor whose sitcom becomes an albatross. But as a dentist in uptown New York? I think not. For one thing, look at the man's teeth: he wouldn't attract the clientele. That's not the only reason that Gervais doesn't convince in Ghost Town: another is that his character is called Dr Bertram Pincus, which means the film's battle is lost from the start. Gervais's agent should have held out for a manageably run-of-the-mill name, but I suppose Koepp couldn't bear to sacrifice his running gag about people calling him "Pink-ass".

Ghost Town is a glossy, derivative package – The Sixth Sense meets A Christmas Carol by way of Bringing Up Baby – that plays Gervais's bumbling sourpuss against a classily ditzy broad, a Katharine Hepburn role filled by Téa Leoni as an expert in mummies. The morose, misanthropic Dr Pincus temporarily dies during a colonoscopy (and seriously – you have to be Larry David to get laughs out of colonoscopy), then begins to see dead people. One of them is Frank (Greg Kinnear), an obnoxious playboy who dies in a tux, and so looks consistently dapper for the rest of his afterlife.

Frank entrusts Pincus with a mission – dissuade his ex-wife (Leoni) from remarrying. Pincus falls for her and decides to win her love, but must first persuade her that he's not the abject jerk he so obviously is. That hollow creaking you hear as I write these words could be the gears of Koepp's script, or Gervais's jaw as it settles into its familiar cheese-eating grimace. Or it could be Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges rising from their tombs to exact revenge for Koepp's shoddy misuse of the screwball tradition.

Ghost Town is not entirely without panache; it's just that it's the wrong kind of panache for Ricky Gervais. The film is a sleek factory product, and its American actors have the snappy confidence that sometimes makes such products work. The moment Kinnear walks on, breezy and abrasive, giving it the old Jack Lemmon chin, you know you're dealing with a pro. Likewise, Kristen Wiig's surgeon, who partners Gervais in an engaging routine where they confusedly volley fragments of unfinished sentences.

All this is not to say that Gervais isn't in their league – just that he's in a different league. His moany, ingratiating floppiness doesn't gel in this brash, buffed context: it's like serving hake and chips in a sushi bar. Surround him with people such as Stephen Merchant or Ashley Jensen, with whom he shares rhythm and a set of social references, and Gervais works a treat. Casting him here makes no more sense than, say, importing Phil Silvers for a Carry On film. (They tried it: catastrophe.)

Gervais could learn about the art of being dyspeptic from Italian actor-director Nanni Moretti, whose air of aggrieved mystification was the backbone of his very personal comedies Dear Diary and Aprile. Moretti has co-written but not directed Quiet Chaos, in which he plays Pietro, who reacts to his wife's sudden death by abandoning work and planting himself on a bench opposite his daughter's school. There's no grand emotional redemption at stake, no narrative string-pulling, just a gentle, persuasively loose evocation of a man piecing his life together after grief has thrown it into jigsaw confusion. Characters from Pietro's life come and go – work colleagues, jeans-designer brother, neurotic sister-in-law (a magnificently frazzled Valeria Golino) – and it all seems a hazy swirl, but Moretti holds it together with his sardonic composure.

Quiet Chaos is too close to Moretti's own Palme d'Or-winning bereavement drama The Son's Room (2001) to feel remotely fresh. But it's intelligent, likeably baggy and elegantly directed by Antonello Grimaldi. The only false note is a supposedly cathartic sex scene, which has a dated air of upmarket Euro softcore. And to be perfectly candid, I can't think of anyone whose bottom I less want to see on screen than Nanni Moretti's. Except, obviously, Ricky Gervais's; at least Ghost Town spares us that.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all