Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 1, 2007)
Yes, I’ve known some dim bulbs in my time. Back in 1990, I worked a part-time job at a restaurant. Our bartender Darrell and I used to chat about movies, and one day he started to talk about how much he wanted to see an upcoming release called Ghost Believe. Since I hadn’t heard of the film in question, I let this go, but as time progressed, it soon became apparent that he was discussing Ghost - “believe” was just the movie’s tag line.
Well, Darrell never was the brightest guy you’d ever meet, but at least he was ahead of the curve on this one. As I noted, I knew little about Ghost until it actually opened at local theaters. From the few previews I witnessed, it looked pretty terrible. Ghost appeared to be nothing more than a lame, pseudo-mystical piece of fluff that would clearly take itself too seriously. While Darrell looked forward to it, I had no interest in the film.
However, I was surprised to hear differently when the movie eventually debuted. From what I read in reviews, Ghost apparently was more of a comedic thriller than a moody piece of New Age fluff. After that, I decided to give the film a shot, and I ultimately agreed with the critical descriptions. Although Ghost packed in a variety of elements, it wasn’t what I’d initially thought it would be.
Not that this meant I actually liked the thing. While I can’t say I thought it was a bad film, I also could not claim to really enjoy Ghost. Ultimately, I found it to be a mildly interesting piece of work, but not one that captivated me in any manner.
I seem to have been in the minority in that regard, as Ghost became a major hit. It was one of those “sleeper” films that emerged from nowhere and went on to do spectacular business. In the crowded summer of 1990, Ghost took in more money than any of its competitors, and it eventually lost the year’s top-grosser honor only to mega-hit Home Alone. After that holiday smash, Ghost took in more money than any other flick from 1990, including major successes like Pretty Woman and Dances With Wolves.
Despite its many other elements, it really seemed to be the romantic aspects that grabbed Ghost its audience, which appeared to be what led to its many repeat customers. As I recall, Ghost was especially popular with the middle-aged female crowd, who aided that terrific gross. I think the same five 45-year-old women in Cleveland accounted for about half of the film’s $217 million take.
The success of Ghost even helped bring it some surprising honors. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including a shocking nod for Best Picture. Of course, it didn’t win that prize, and this was one of those cases in which it really was an honor just to have been nominated. Still, it took home an award for its screenplay, and Whoopi Goldberg earned a trophy as Best Supporting Actress, so the night was quite successful.
Granted, it wasn’t as big an Oscar night as the one experienced by another film that reminds me a lot of Ghost: Titanic. On the surface, they seem to be dissimilar projects, but both succeeded for many of the same reasons. They had enough “guy appeal” to make them acceptable for a male audience, and they combined elements of a variety of genres. Primarily, however, they were seen as romance films, and that’s what brought them a lot of their money, as love-struck females flocked to watch them again and again.
Personally, I think this was a much more important factor in the success of Ghost than it was for Titanic. The latter made almost three times as much money in the US, and though its detractors claim that it earned all that dough due to the female teenybopper crowd who couldn’t get enough of Leonardo DiCaprio, that’s clearly not the truth. No film claims a $600 million US gross due to a niche audience. In truth, no movie could take home $217 million in the US just because of a certain limited crowd, but I think it’s likely that Ghost’s partisan participation was responsible for a much higher percentage of its sales than was the case for Titanic.
How much of that niche still cares about Ghost is a mystery to me, however. Ghost begins with a happy occasion. Young couple Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) and Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) have just moved into a New York loft, and all seems right in their world: they’re young, they’re hot, they’re in love. Sam seems to be quite successful as a banker, and Molly does nicely with her artwork. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, apparently, as the situation quickly becomes negative. After they leave a play, Sam is shot and killed during a robbery attempt. As such, he then enters the land of the spirits, and he tries to cope with this status. His situation becomes tougher when he learns that Molly’s in danger and he needs to communicate with her. Through happenstance, he encounters a fake psychic named Oda Mae Brown (Goldberg), but it turns out that she actually possesses some gifts, and he’s able to make his thoughts known to her. The remainder of the film shows Sam as he works through his ghostly issues and digs into the complications of the plot, all of which are more serious than originally obvious.
Probably the best aspect of Ghost is the manner in which it combines the different genre elements. It doesn’t stick too long with just one of them, so the comedy, action, suspense and romance all mix together nicely. It’s rare to find a movie that is able to span a variety of themes so well. Ghost blends its different sides together in a smooth and neat package, so that - unlike something such as the incoherent Crazy In Alabama - the story moves at a sensible pace and the varying genres coalesce effectively.
That said, I never feel any of the different elements become especially compelling. Yes, Ghost mixes themes in a natural manner, but that doesn’t mean that it excels at any of those genres. I’d have to say that the romantic aspects are probably the best executed. After all, those are the film’s bread and butter, and the pottery-related love scene is still the movie’s most famous segment.
As for the comedy, virtually all of it rests in the hands of Goldberg, and even though she took home an Oscar, I’m not terribly impressed with her performance. Throughout much of the film, it feels like we’re watching a cut-rate Eddie Murphy impersonator. I think that Goldberg is mildly amusing, and her presence keeps Ghost from becoming the drowsy mystical piece I’d originally expected, but I don’t think she offers anything special.
However, in comparison with some of her costars, she’s quite good. Actually, that’s too sweeping of a generalization. Moore is perfectly fine as Molly, especially since the character has little to do other than cry. Tony Goldwyn is appropriately slick and weaselly as Sam’s friend Carl, and Vincent Schiavelli offers a memorable turn as a nutso subway spook.
The weak link is Swayze, who seems like little more than a vapid pretty boy throughout the movie. He looks good in the part, but that’s about it, as he never makes Sam a character about whom I care. It doesn’t help that early in the film he and Carl are characterized as smug yuppies. That persona makes sense for Carl, but it creates a notion of Sam that leads me to vaguely dislike him.
Swayze lacks the charisma to ever overcome those initial thoughts. Granted, Sam seems like a nice guy, but there’s no spark or personality that makes me interested in him. It doesn’t help that Swayze proves to be completely inept when he has to display emotion. Though I suppose he handles some of Sam’s weepier moments fairly well, he looks laughable when he has to show rage or other darker feelings. My general dislike of Swayze is probably my biggest problem with Ghost, as I simply rarely buy into his character.
Nonetheless, Ghost remains a decent movie after all this time. Its enormous success baffled me in 1990, and it still makes no sense to me, but I do recognize the smooth manner in which it jumps across a variety of genres. This variety helped make the film more broadly appealing, and it meant that despite some flaws, Ghost still could be fairly entertaining.
Only one thing about Ghost made me bitter: its use of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”. I’d never heard this tune until the year before the film’s release when U2 put out a terrific cover of it on the B-side of their “All I Want Is You” single. After that, I was excited to turn on my friends to this great song, but my legs were cut out from under me when Ghost made it a tune known by everybody. God forbid I lose my territorial rights, and I’m bitter to this day!