Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990) has to be the silliest movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture, and I haven’t forgot about Doctor Dolittle (1967), a movie in which a man makes his trade by talking and singing at animals. This is a slight and fairly ridiculous movie, one that is unapologetically schmaltzy, but what saves Ghost is its sincerity. It doesn’t ask you to take it too seriously (don’t worry, you can’t), but it earnestly wants you to believe in it, and it casts an enjoyable spell if you let down your intellectual wall and get into the, for lack of a better word, spirit.
The movie stars Patrick Swayze as Sam Wheat, a successful banker who has found happiness with his girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore), an artist. They are in the kind of love that regular people don’t find, the kind that is so strong it can make clay spinning, the least appealing and most tactilely repellent of all the arts, into an occasion for intimacy. Sam and Molly are walking home from the theater one night when they are mugged; things get out of hand and the mugger’s gun goes off. The assailant runs off with Sam in hot pursuit. Sam yields and turns back to check on Molly and is dismayed to find that she is holding a bloody and lifeless body: his. Sam has died and is now a ghost; he can see and hear Molly but she can’t do the same. He can walk through walls but he can’t move real objects nor can he change his clothes. Mothers everywhere warn their children to wear clean underwear because you don’t know when your number gets called and you don’t want to have a dirty pair on when it does. Ghost adds a special poignancy to this sentiment as Sam has to spend eternity in a fairly unimpressive red polo-jean combo (this is a diversion, but Sam is seen at work the day he is murdered in a smart suit; he changes out of that into the polo/jean situation for the theater [jeans at the theater, terrible]; why didn’t he stay in the suit?).
Sam learns that his death was not as random as it seemed and that he was actually set up by his coworker and supposed friend Carl (Tony Goldwyn), who needed Sam out of the way to access funds he wants to use to pay off his debts. Finding this knowledge is disconcerting to Sam, who can’t let anyone know about it until he stumbles upon Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), a huckster psychic who rooks people out of money by pretending to talk with their dead loved ones. For some reason she finds she can do the real thing with Sam. Using Oda Mae as his medium, he tries to communicate with Molly (she’s naturally skeptical) and bring justice to Carl, and those two things come nicely together as Carl tries to take advantage of Molly’s grief to get in bed with her (he uses the ol’ “Oh, look, I’ve spilled coffee all over my shirt. I guess I’ve got to take it off now” routine, which nearly works for the first time in human existence). Eventually, Sam learns supernatural tricks that allow him to move physical objects, and he becomes a sort of invisible hero who can protect his woman and avenge his death without ever being seen. When his job is done, he and Molly share a brief moment when she can see him before he enters the light of what is presumably heaven, where he can, hopefully, get a change of clothes.
Ghost would be insufferable (and its first half is pretty brutal) if it didn’t have such conviction. A lot of this is thanks to Swayze, that most heartfelt of actors, who ardently sells Sam’s helplessness and frustration without ever having him feel weak. It’s admirable that Sam, after fully understanding the limits of his existence, continues to yell threats at villains who can’t hear him or give direction to Molly who cannot sense his presence. Until he finds Oda Mae, Sam spends most of his time behaving like a puppy, desperately trying to communicate, looking forlorn when he’s ignored and elated when things go his way, even if that happens completely outside of his doing.
The movie takes off when it has Oda Mae at its center and its best scene is a comic one, as Sam gets Oda Mae to close an account at a posh bank that will foil Carl’s scheme. Goldberg has wonderful comic timing in Ghost and her smart-alecky, disbelieving sarcasm doesn’t mock Swayze’s enthusiasm; it actually complements it, amazingly. The movie rarely trusts Goldberg, however, and many of its most cringe-worthy moments come during her introduction when she does a fine job of playing the shameless charlatan and the script insists on giving Sam pointless asides to underline (and kill) her jokes. Still, she remains the best part of the movie, a modern oasis in an old-fashioned story. Take Spielberg’s Always (1989), which is narratively similar and certainly has a similar sensibility. It fails because it’s missing a character like Oda Mae; it has no tie to a contemporary awareness and remains an old-fashioned tale for nothing more than nostalgia’s sake. Oda Mae, through Goldberg, is Ghost’s bulwark against crushing sentimentality.
She can’t save the movie’s romance, however, which is a weak point. The bathetic notion that Sam would spend his existence as a supernatural object trying to save his love from bodily harm is nice, but it flies in the face of the movie’s internal logic and even of Sam’s desire to reunite with Molly. After discovering death is painless, why would Sam be interested in protecting Molly from temporary discomfort when, considering he mentions time and again that his one desire is to reconnect with her, her death would fulfill that desire? The movie doesn’t convince us that Sam would act so limitedly with eternity as does the romance of Wings of Desire (1987), perhaps the greatest movie about the spirits that haunt the world, but then despite a shared subject, those two movies are polar opposites in tone. There is a moment near the end when Sam “possesses” Oda Mae and, through her, is able to dance with Molly once more. This should be the romantic highlight of the movie but instead of poignantly giving us Moore and Goldberg embracing, sweetly making do with what’s available to them, the movie substitutes Swayze into the scene giving us a saccharine and artificial image. In another movie this would be a fatal error, but with Ghost, it’s just as well. The movie is entirely uninterested in being anything but a sterile fantasy.
It’s insistence on schmaltz over substance keeps it from achieving greatness but it is probably the key factor that makes Ghost so infectiously crowd-pleasing. This is a movie in which the couple’s tearful last words to each other are “See ya.” Its most dastardly threat is, “I need that money and I want it tonight at eleven o’clock. If that psychic lady doesn’t bring it here, Molly is dead, OK?” It also features about a half-dozen shots of Swayze awkwardly punching at things that he cannot touch and has unexplained goofy-assed black spirits that carry away the souls of the wicked. And yet once the viewer accepts the maudlinism and simply gives in, it becomes a buoyant experience. It certainly wore me down.