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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
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.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing