By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 26, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ghost is a dazzlingly enjoyable pop thriller. It jumps off from the sort of supernatural premise that usually feels fuddy-duddy — a man is killed, returns as a ghost, and then watches invisibly over his lover — but the material has been brought to life with an up-to-the-minute wit and a spirit of roller-coaster showmanship that leaves you elated. This is the first solo outing for director Jerry Zucker, part of the bad-boy trio that created Airplane! and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! Already it’s clear that he’s a major talent. Zucker still has his restless prankster’s spirit, only now it’s tempered by a new sensuousness, an eroticized vision of the possibilities of love and danger. Who would have thought a sophomoric cut-up like Jerry Zucker would turn out to be a romantic? Ghost is funny, mysterious, and finally moving — a beautiful toy shop of a movie. It makes all the big summer action flicks look like high-priced car wrecks.

The early scenes ease you into the tender domestic bliss of Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) and Molly Jensen (Demi Moore). He’s an investment banker, she’s a pottery artist whose career is beginning to take off, and they’ve just found their pscale kingdom, an elegant loft in Manhattan’s chic Tribeca district. The movie presents these typical yupsters in a way that’s amazingly original: It makes them human beings. The two playfully caress while Molly is working on one of her tall, squishy sculptures at the pottery wheel; the scene is both an outrageous phallic joke and the most affectionate bit of foreplay imaginable.

Then tragedy strikes. The two are attacked by a mugger, and Sam is shot and killed. At first, his transformation into a ghost seems almost cornball — a beam of Tinkerbell stardust washes down from heaven — but as he starts hanging out in Molly’s living room (she can neither see nor hear him), the movie settles into an invitingly casual mood. Zucker wants us to experience the afterlife as a series of rudely disorienting kinesthetic shocks. Walking through walls leaves Sam shuddering with dread (the ”pass-through” effects have an eerie tactility), and his inability to make any sort of dent in the physical world, or to let Molly know that he’s there, is presented as a kind of impotence, a comeuppance, of sorts, for his never having told Molly he loved her.

With voyeurism comes knowledge. Sam learns that the mugging was part of an elaborate and mysterious scheme against him. Now the mugger (Rick Aviles) appears to be after Molly as well. As Sam struggles to give her a sign that he’s still around (and that she’s in danger), Ghost becomes a slyly fantastic drawing-room farce and an emotionally charged mystery in which Sam rediscovers the epth of his romantic feelings.

Time and again, Zucker shows the confidence to veer off onto some weird new terrain and keep the audience in his thrall. There are scary moments with a subway-dwelling ghost who terrorizes Sam and then teaches him how to master his new paranormal state. Vincent Schiavelli, an actor some may remember from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has a stricken, fun house-mirror face that is sure to give some children nightmares, and he turns in a rough gem of a performance. There’s also a third lead character, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), a charlatan psychic from Brooklyn who turns out to have real powers after all: She can hear Sam’s voice when he’s around. Using her to connect with Molly ought to be a snap, but Oda Mae is such a sassy, compulsive huckster that she can scarcely be bothered. This delicious comic performance is nothing less than a full-fledged comeback for Goldberg. Her Oda Mae is a glorious flake, so irresistible that it seems perfectly right when Zucker, in a crucial money-caper sequence, puts the thrills on hold and lets her take over the movie.

Swayze, eyes full of fear and yearning, gives his richest performance yet. Always anhysical actor, he makes Sam’s ectoplasmic state seem both real and not real — a prison and a liberation. And Moore has a lovely, vulnerable presence (even if she’s at times too recessive). As Sam and Molly circle each other, accompanied by the rapturous strains of the Righteous Brothers singing ”Unchained Melody,” Ghost becomes the movie Steven Spielberg’s Always wanted to be — a touching meditation on the endurance of romantic love. But where Spielberg’s film got gummed up in its own sticky-sweet mechanics, Ghost, in its blissful final scene, evokes the spirit of rapt wonder that has always been the hallmark of Spielberg’s best films. Here’s the last thing we might have expected from the summer of 1990: a movie by someone who hasn’t lost his innocence.


  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Jerry Zucker