Movie review: 'Ghost Town' stereotypes dentists

By Monica F. Anderson, DDS, DrBicuspid.com contributing writer

September 23, 2008 -- The opening scene of "Ghost Town," with its realistic images of a dental office, raised my hopes this movie might, unlike most of its predecessors, accurately portray our profession. And the movie, which opened last weekend, has many light-hearted moments, courtesy of British actor Ricky Gervais. But sadly, the numerous stereotypes of dentists will cause more groans than laughs for those in the profession.

“Sadly, the numerous stereotypes of dentists will cause more groans than laughs for those in the profession.”

The movie begins with glimpses of a gloved hand expressing anesthetic from a syringe prior to an injection, properly mounted radiographs, and alginate powder near a mixing bowl. Yes, I thought, here's the antidote to the public's unhealthy "Marathon Man" addiction, which my colleagues and I have been trying to cure since that 1976 thriller typecast us as cruel and unusual people. My confidence wavered with minor technical inaccuracies that followed -- such as the dentist's failure to wear a mask beneath his face shield and his reference to bone loss along the "upper left mandibular gum line."

Still, I clung to the hope that Gervais might redeem our profession's image in a way "Finding Nemo" (sigh ... I loved THAT movie) could not. To my great disappointment, however, dentists are once again portrayed as depressed, anal, cold-hearted jerks who hate their jobs.

The plot is simple, slow, and lacking in originality. Irascible loner Dr. Bertram Pincus (Gervais), who clearly loathes his patients and all other human beings, is admitted to the hospital for a colonoscopy. His physician (Kristen Wiig) advises him that he doesn't need general anesthesia for this routine procedure.

After insulting her, Dr. Pincus insists on being put to sleep. Of course, something terrible always happens when you are rude to your physician prior to surgery, and something really terrible happens to Dr. Pincus: he dies -- for almost seven minutes. Upon being revived, he has the ability to communicate with the dead. Not all the dead -- only those who continue to roam the earth until they have closure with their loved ones. They desperately stalk the reluctant dentist/medium even though he refuses their pleas for help.

Enter Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a charming but dead adulterer, who promises to get rid of the annoying visitations if Dr. Pincus will help him break up the engagement of his widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni). You don't need a crystal ball to predict what ensues.

I expected Dr. Pincus to be wry, witty, and as likeable as the main characters in "Mr. Bean" or "Monty Python," but Gervais' accent is as close to British humor as this film gets. Dr. Pincus is not likeable at all. He's rude, racist, and emotionally stunted until the last 20 minutes of the movie. He has all the charm of a nose hair. The only explanations we're offered for his awful disposition are that he was jilted by a former lover and that he's constipated.

These misfortunes don't excuse a licensed healthcare provider asking his colleague to prescribe him a narcotic, as Dr. Pincus does in one scene. Nor do they explain why he has no family. No parents. No siblings. Not even a stuffed cat. To his credit (and ours), he carries a Mont Blanc pen, seems to be financially secure, and wears a Burberry trench coat. That is the extent of his similarity to any dentist I've met in 20 years of practice. From his crowded teeth and wolfish cuspids to his Grinch-sized heart, he perpetuates every negative caricature of our profession.

This 102-minute, PG-13 movie does offer wonderful glimpses of Manhattan, good acting, dozens of chuckles, and a life lesson on the rewards of helping others. If you are able to constantly remind yourself that Dr. Pincus is a purely fictional character who does not actually practice "Cosmetic, Constructive, and General Dentistry," you may find this movie mildly enjoyable. I suggest you save your money and wait for the DVD. I don't think you'll have to wait long.

Monica F. Anderson, D.D.S., is a general dentist, speaker, and writer in Austin, TX. Visit her Web site at www.drmOeanderson.com.


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