Isn’t this the film whose theatrical ad campaign asked moviegoers to ”Believe again and again”? So why is Paramount releasing Ghost at a steep retail price that encourages video rentals and discourages purchases of the tape?

Perhaps Ghost‘s unusually high return business in theaters convinced the studio that the film had burned up its repeatability before coming to video. More to the point, Paramount may have realized that this particular movie just works better on the big screen. In theaters, it was an emotionally overwhelming audience experience and one of the most potent date films of recent years. But on the TV set, with the lights on and the dog barking, much about Ghost fades away except its flaws.

The movie never even makes good on its central promise. One of our most primal, self-centered fantasies is the sneaky wish to stick around after our deaths and see what people really think of us. But that idea pretty much lends itself to satire, and Ghost is serious as only a movie made by a comedy director trying to change his stripes can be. In a big switch from the dizzy Airplane! and Ruthless People (codirected with Jim Abrahams and David Zucker), Jerry Zucker has crafted Ghost as a tightly constructed thriller overlaid with a keening sense of martyred romance.

Bruce Joel Rubin’s script puts the freshly deceased Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) on the trail of his murderer, bounding from the New York City loft apartment where girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) grieves to the Wall Street bank where venal coworker Carl (Tony Goldwyn) schemes to the seedy Brooklyn neighborhood where wacky psychic Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg) is the only one he can talk to. That’s a lot of plot, and Ghost clocks in at over two hours, but credit Zucker, with his background of orchestrating complex lunacy, with keeping it all straightforward and engaging.

It’s when Zucker indulges Rubin’s penchant for morbid/romantic weirdness (even more on display in Rubin’s screwy Jacob’s Ladder) that Ghost grinds to a halt. Take the movie’s most talked-about scene, when, before his murder, Sam works Molly into a frenzy of yuppie lust with candlelight, potter’s clay, and the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 version of ”Unchained Melody.” In the dark of the theater, the moment was both touching and sexy — great for playing hand-hockey with your honey in the dark. On video, though, it seems to go on forever (for the song’s full 3 1/2 minutes, in fact). But the movie really begins to slide with the appearance of the dippy wraiths whose job it is to take Bad Ghosts to their just reward. Meant to be terrifying, they look more like Smurfs From Hell, and the film treats them with such solemnity that it’s impossible not to snicker.

Another problem — a major one — is the limited acting ability of Ghost‘s lead. Patrick Swayze is handsome and graceful (being a trained dancer), but he adds nothing particularly interesting to Sam Wheat: The character remains as remote as a model in a mail-order catalog. That wooden universality may actually be a key to Ghost‘s success — the actor’s like a blank screen on which the audience can project its identification — but the fact remains that when asked to look horrified, depressed, or perplexed, Swayze puts on the same bug-eyed grimace. Ghost may mark his big comeback, but Swayze really seemed more at home in B flicks like the trashy, kinetic Road House, in which he could play a unique hybrid of Gene Kelly and Steven Seagal.

Luckily, the other performances compensate. With a character just as underwritten as Swayze’s, Demi Moore turns in a surprisingly rich performance; we feel Molly’s solid strength underneath the simple teary confusion the script asks her to show. Tony Goldwyn slyly uses his big eyes and ferret face to convey an average kid hornswoggled by the greedy promises of the Reagan decade. And as the tormented ghost who tutors Swayze in ectoplasmic etiquette, Vincent Schiavelli conveys a depth of emotion Swayze can’t begin to approach.

Then there’s Whoopi Goldberg, who is truly hilarious here; in fact, she almost single-handedly saves Ghost from becoming unbearably soggy. But the success of her role, even the deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, has an ironic subtext: While Goldberg’s own movies have flopped noisily, she wins respect playing supporting loon to white actors. Indeed, a tinge of stereotype casting becomes clearer with repeat video viewings. At its core, Ghost is about an upscale pair of generic white lovebirds who are threatened by a slavering, rape-minded Hispanic (played by the usually savvy stand-up comic Rick Aviles) and helped by a loudmouth con artist who makes her living scamming superstitious, eye-rolling black folk (go ahead, cue the gospel music; the movie does).

Despite its calculations, Ghost is not entirely a synthetic piece of Hollywood plastic. If you don’t think there are strong, basic emotions in Rubin’s screenplay, try naming another recent film that has dived into personal grief as deeply. The problem is that those emotions often get the better of the movie. In its final moments, after the villain is vanquished and the thriller plot wrapped up, Ghost completely caves in to sniffly, over-the-top silliness: As the music soars, the now-visible Sam waves good-bye to Molly and strides toward a heaven that looks a little too much like the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the dark of the movie theater, that finale worked well enough to send moviegoers home holding hands.

Flickering garishly on a small screen, though, it plays like a scene from Outer Limits. In short, it’s hard to believe in this Ghost when the lights are on. C+

  • Movie