Ghost Town (2008) is one of the finest romantic comedies ever made. It’s a grown up film about grown up problems (regret, companionship, second chances – they’re all themes); it’s not a sickly sweet teen romance. Even though the situation is fantasy, the characters themselves are totally believable in their world.
Moreover the screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps is written with absolute economy and constructed without an ounce of fat. Not one scene in the movie is wasted, each being packed with character and story revelations – some subtle, some part of the main plot, but all driving the narrative towards a deeply satisfying and moving conclusion.
One especially poignant scene uses costume (design by Sarah Edwards) to cleverly convey sentiment without the need for extraneous dialogue:
When Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) visits Gwen (Téa Leoni) at work on the pretext of lending his dental expertise, he buys himself a brand new item of clothing to wear: a yellow Tattersall check shirt with button-down collar. He immediately tries the shirt on, playing with the collar and setting his hair fifty different ways in a clear effort to impress Gwen.
Their meeting goes well, perhaps surprisingly so for the audience, with Gwen warming to Pincus’ dry humour while he getting a kick out of her kookiness. It’s playful and convincing, though what works best in this scene is the understated pay-off at the very end.
As a now relaxed Pincus offers Gwen a stick of gum, he casually turns his back on her to talk. Unbeknown to Pincus the price label on his new shirt dangles into view from the rear of his collar. Of course as the audience we see the reveal, but more important we see that Gwen sees the reveal.
Watch the reaction on Téa’s face as she gently smiles to herself. Gwen now knows that Pincus has gone out and bought a new shirt especially to impress her. It softens his character and draws her, however gradually, into falling in love with him.
No unnecessary dialogue, no clumsy scene with Gwen overhearing Pincus and some random character we never see again discussing how smitten he is with ‘this woman in his building’. Instead director/writer Koepp created a moment of quiet subtlety. It’s show don’t tell, and he used clothes to achieve it.
© 2009 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.