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Ten Word or Less Review: Not too twisty, not too dumb, just right.

There’s a simple way to summarize “The Ghost Writer.”  It’s a tenacious piece of Hitchcockian styled storytelling that would normally get positive kudos, a nice pat on the back, a friendly hand shake and then you’d walk away from it having enjoyed its company.  Needing to relish the experience with long, thought out pontificating isn’t really necessary.  It’s good enough by a fold, not quite on par with classic Alfred, but well done, and that in and of itself is kind of a rarity in these days of CGI overkill and emotionally retarded bombast.  But because Roman Polanski directed it, everything tends to get overblown by multiples.  The controversial director incites film lovers to wild acts of over praising, as well as provokes detractors to tear down anything he does as the act of a wretched, scum sucking monster that deserves to die.  If you put all those feverish opinions aside, you’ll find a good piece of mystery/suspense film making with a curious but good cast and enough shows of personality to mask the slightly generic machinery under its hood.

Ewan McGregor plays an unnamed character only referred to as Ghost.  He’s a professional ghost writer of celebrity memoirs called in to help put together a book for a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) surrounded in controversy.  He’s landed the job after the last writer turns up drowned.  Ghost isn’t on the job long before the situation begins to build into an out of control political firestorm.  Brosnan’s minister is accused of war crimes and facing a trial in the Hague, The P.M.s beautiful wife (Olivia Williams) keeps implying her husband is a cheat and as things usually go in these types of films, Ghost slowly comes to realize that his own life is on shaky ground as the situation puts him in over his head.  On paper it all sounds routine, and to some extent it is, but an able cast and a strong screenplay by Polanski and author Robert Harris circumvent the routine nature of the story.

After spending much of the previous decade either swinging his lightsaber or just doing one film after another that simply stunk, Ewan McGregor has finally managed to land in something that works for his hard to peg demeanor.  He’s always looked a little too rough around the edges to be an old fashioned leading man, but he has a light quality to him that puts more serious roles out of his range.  His inherently odd presence is a good fit here because it’s easy to get weary with leads in films like “Ghost Writer”.  The atypical character of films like this always ends up being in the dark to things most of the audience has already figured out.  If the audience gets too far ahead of main character then the film playing out is dead in the water.  McGregor’s Ghost has enough know how and initiative to follow along and not get short with or sick of.  He’s a respectable wiseass instead of a character vacuum there for the audience to project themselves onto.  The part lacks challenge but has enough pluck to be a good anchor for the rest of the story.  Pierce Brosnan continues his erratic post-Bond career with a sturdy but shorter than expected part.  The showy, scene stealer from “Tailor of Panama” and “Thomas Crown” isn’t in full force here.  Olivia Williams and Kim Catrall, a long way from “Sex in the City”, do really good supporting work.  Williams as Brosnan’s edgy and pissed off wife and Catrall as his Assistant/mistress.

Of course, what a lot of people will want to talk about is the man behind the camera.  To get it out in the open, I have no love for Polanski or the 6 or 7 of his movies I’ve seen.  “Chinatown” aside I usually want to turn his movies off before they’re over.  Posturing, full of shit and dull are the descriptors I think of when I think of pieces of his resume I’m privy to.  “The Ghost Writer” is just his 8th film of the past 30 years and the only one that seems noteworthy or likely to be carried on.  With this work Polanski shows that a capable crafter of entertaining thrillers was buried under all the bullshit.  It feels like a better constructed, less derivative relative of his own film from 1999, “The Ninth Gate.”  That too was an ‘everyman in over his head’ mystery but it felt like it was made and assembled by an unimaginative dipshit.  This time out there’s nothing showy, attention getting or dunderheaded about the assembly.  It’s straight forward and on the occasion when rules do get toyed with, the effect is comical.

Polanski supporters will tell you “The Ghost Writer” is the craftiest thing since they invented craft.  It’s not.  But it’s good enough in all the right ways and it has one of the best last scenes of any movie in recent memory.

Related To: The Tailor of Panama, The Ninth Gate, The Conversation, Hitchcock films


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