Current Hollywood thinking extends into the next world, but not very far. Being dead has lately been presented on screen as a character-building experience, but beyond that the current ghost films hedge their bets. The questions of just what ghosts can do, of what effect ghosts may have on others or even of how ghosts regard their new status are seldom even addressed. What seems most important is that ghosts come to the aid of their loved ones, and that the ghost film manages, at least on its own terms, to be sincere.
”Ghost,” which stars Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore as lovers separated by that great, trend-minded screenwriter in the sky, is nothing if not earnest. It’s also eccentric enough to remain interesting even when its ghost story isn’t easy to believe. As directed by Jerry Zucker, previously known as part of the three-man directing team behind comedies like ”Airplane!” and ”Ruthless People,” ”Ghost” veers repeatedly from the somber to the broadly comic, with a number of strange but appealingly offbeat digressions along the way. This may, for instance, be the only film with a steamily romantic sequence in which the hero and the heroine get together and make pottery.
”Ghost” begins by presenting Sam Wheat, an improbably named investment banker (Mr. Swayze), and Molly Jensen, an up-and-coming artist (Ms. Moore), as an idyllically happy New York couple moving into a new loft. But an angel being hoisted into the loft’s window, a news report of an airplane crash and even Molly’s desire to see a performance of ”Macbeth” – all these things foretell trouble. Sure enough, Sam and Molly are strolling amorously down a deserted street when a gun-toting mugger appears. Sam’s number is up.
The film’s attitude about ghosthood is so uncertain that it doesn’t allow Sam much chance to adjust. He finds himself in a hospital emergency room, where a fellow ghost (Phil Leeds) talks like a borscht-belt comic; he wanders around dazedly trying to get used to the fact that he can walk through doors and turnstiles. He returns to Molly but can’t communicate with her at all. He discovers a terrible secret about a colleague, even though the audience is already miles ahead of him. (For the forseeable future, it looks as though the mere sight of suspenders will be enough to seal a yuppie film character’s fate.) Fortunately, the third of the film’s three stars is Whoopi Goldberg, the one performer here who seems to have a clear idea of what she’s up to. Dressed in a long teased wig and flowing gold robes, Ms. Goldberg plays a disreputable medium named Oda Mae Brown who is horrified to find one of her bogus seances interrupted by a real ghost. Oda Mae becomes Sam’s means of communicating with the corporeal world, and Ms. Goldberg plays the character’s amazement, irritation and great gift for back talk to the hilt. This is one of those rare occasions on which the uncategorizable Ms. Goldberg has found a film role that really suits her, and she makes the most of it.
Mr. Swayze duly registers all the emotions called for by Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay, and does best when called upon to look uncomplicatedly stalwart or express himself in some physical way. Ms. Moore combines toughness and delicacy most attractively, but the story requires her to look terminally wistful much of the time. Mr. Zucker’s direction needlessly defuses much of what goes on between these two separated lovers by keeping Mr. Swayze on screen too much of the time, so that he’s less like a ghost than an albatross in certain scenes. Unable to communicate with the living or even react very much, he must simply sit by helplessly until they finish talking.
Only late in the story, with the help of a strange fellow ghost who inhabits the subway (Vincent Schiavelli), does Sam develop the power to express himself directly, and to wreak revenge on those who have betrayed him. Even at this stage the film has its odd inconsistencies, particularly in a scene for which Mr. Zucker bends the rules of ghosthood to allow the lovers one last dance.
”Ghost” is too slow moving at times, and a few of its special effects look incongruously silly, particularly those showing what happens to ghosts not as virtuous as Sam. These days, as movie-making logic seems to dictate, it’s the nice guys who are allowed to stay.