Writer-director Christopher Landon’s latest largely ditches horror in the supernatural family comedy.
Christopher Landon’s recent output — Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2 U, Freaky—is a hot streak of horror comedies delivered on guffaws and arterial spray. For those hoping for that mixture, We Have a Ghost will certainly not scratch that particular itch. However, for those who love Landon’s interest in family relationships and grief or are simply open to a family comedy with a serious streak, his latest will satisfy.
Adapted (VERY loosely) from the short story “Ernest” by Geoff Manaugh, We Have a Ghost focuses on the Presley family. They’re in a subtle, all too common kind of turmoil. Father Frank (Anthony Mackie) has a largely unexplained history of playing it fast and loose, leaving his relationship with his youngest son Kevin (Jahi Winston) especially frayed. Their move to massive but crumbling Victorian in the Chicago suburbs is their latest “second chance.” While older son Fulton (Niles Fitch) and mother Melanie (Erica Ash) are willing to play along, Kevin has decided to shrink within himself, rejecting even neighbor Joy’s (Isabella Russo) friendship overtures.
A chance encounter with “Ernest” (David Harbour), the titular ghost, lifts Kevin’s spirits (no pun intended). Unfortunately, when dad discovers the video, he sees it as a money-making opportunity. That puts Ernest and the Presley family in the crosshairs of several people. Chief among them is Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro), a believer with a bone to pick with the supernatural and a secret mothballed government project to back it up.
David Harbour Is Spooky Good
In the film’s mythology, ghosts can do more than your average cinema specter. Harbour’s Ernest can touch people, lift objects, and wear items of clothing in addition to the usual disappear, move through walls, and make everything very cold. One thing he cannot do, however, is speak. The closest Ernest can get are the classic moans and groans. Thus, once he realizes that not only is Kevin not scared of him, but that he wants to engage with him, Harbour has to convey everything with his facial expression and body language.
Given Harbour’s stage history, it is perhaps no surprise that he parks the performance into the upper deck. There’s a moment early on, before we even know the character, where he shoots co-star Winston such an open expression of vulnerable sadness, he immediately catches the audience by the throat.
It isn’t all deep seriousness, though. Harbour gives the ghost a goofy playfulness. His funny, sweet interactions with Winston and Russo foreshadow who he was in life long before the film offers us any confirmation. Scenes opposite Notaro, Mackie, Ash, and several cops round him out further, showing his hesitance to engage after years alone and a bit of a righteous temper.
Harbour’s performance ensures the film’s central relationship–between him and Winston–plays. In other hands, the ghost easily could’ve felt too broad or remote. Either would’ve stranded his scene partners.
Strong Spectral Support
Speaking of those scene partners, the way We Have a Ghost most closely resembles Landon’s other recent efforts is the film’s grasp on interfamily love and strife. The script, smartly, keeps the past scenes of the patriarch Mackie plays vague. There’s a reference to a pyramid scheme here, a temper there, but it all remains a bit nebulous. That gives Mackie space to play Frank as recognizably flawed without being monstrous. His big speech moment might be a little thick for some, but the movie, and the actor, earn it.
Ash and Fitch are similarly honest despite limited screen time. The quartet as a unit feels like a realistic family with all the love and petty squabbles it entails.
The only part that feels a bit unfinished is Notaro’s Dr. Monroe. While vagueness helps Mackie’s Frank, it leaves Notaro’s character frustratingly indistinct. Notaro makes her moments work, but they don’t feel part of the same person. While the running time was a bit long (more on that in a moment), it feels like We Have a Ghost cut away a critical subplot that would’ve more fully rounded her out.
A Very Active Apparition
As the plot description above suggests—especially given that it leaves out appearances by TV medium Judy Romano (Jennifer Coolidge) and a quest to figure out why Ernest is still haunting the Earthly plane—there’s plenty going on in We Have a Ghost. Arguably, it may be a bit too much.
At two hours and seven minutes, the film occasionally feels unfocused and long in the tooth. This is especially the case during the portion that feels most like a family film. The scene with Coolidge adds little to the film and isn’t especially funny despite her undeniable comic shops. The only hesitance in discarding it is because it’s also the scene with the best ghost effects, including a spider walk and some literal face melting.
The montage of the viral spread of Ernest’s videos is hit or miss as well. Some aspects do nail the current landscape. Ernest is a supernatural figure who looks like David Harbour? Of course, there would be a host of thirsty TikToks, even with that horrifying comb over. The “jokes” about ghost rights, though? There’s plenty of room to lampoon the “overly concerned with making everything political” social media class, but these gags feel immediately past their sell-by date.
Cutting away some of the sillier bits might make it somewhat less family-friendly—given the ending, probably not a bad idea—but it would make for a tighter, better We Have a Ghost.
Going Towards The Light
We Have a Ghost is definitely a departure from much of Landon’s previous work, whether screenwriting or behind the lens. It is certainly not without flaws, especially its flabby middle and a few “this is also for kids” moments.
However, it does wonders with the family dynamics and creates a ghost that, ironically, feels like a three-dimensional person. The film’s second climax (yes, it is that kind of movie) is well-staged and frightening in an all too human way as well.
Taken as a whole, We Have a Ghost has more to recommend than not. You may wish for a tighter cut, but you certainly won’t regret meeting Ernest.
We Have a Ghost starts rattling its chain February 24 on Netflix.
Rating: 7/10 SPECS
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.
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