*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jerry Zucker

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin

With Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tony Goldwyn.

Could it be that the charming but slight 1937 ghost comedy Topper is going to take its place on the list of American classics–The Searchers, Rear Window, Scarface, etc–that have provided narrative grist for contemporary Hollywood mills? The unpretentious adaptation of Thorne Smith’s tale of a pair of dead marrieds (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) who ectoplasmically hector a respectable middle-class husband (Roland Young) has been reincarnated recently, first in Beetlejuice and now in Ghost, the story of a murdered stockbroker (Patrick Swayze) who enlists the aid of a crooked spiritualist (Whoopi Goldberg) to rescue his beautiful girlfriend (Demi Moore) from the crooks who done him in (cf Topper Returns).

However, the ambitions of director Jerry Zucker soar considerably above the genre parodies he executed in partnership with his brother David Zucker and Jim Abrahams in Airplane!, Top Secret!, and The Naked Gun. Conceived as a three-toned pastiche, Ghost is entirely satisfactory both as a gothic thriller and as a comedy, but it pales when it comes to the romantic hues. When the film takes a chance, it almost always succeeds–its faults stem from a blanching of its ambition, not artistic hubris–and with Whoopi Goldberg’s finest screen comedy work thrown in for good measure, the overall effect is one of giddy suspense.

Wall Street warrior Sam Wheat (Swayze, who virtually disappears when he’s wearing a business suit; is this the real Clark Kent?) and his live-in lover Molly Jensen (Moore), a molder of clay and wood, have almost finished moving into their new rehabbed loft. Suffering the sort of mental lapse usually associated with out-of-towners, the lovebirds are walking home through an unnaturally dark and deserted New York street when they are mugged by a gun-wielding Puerto Rican. Sam, continuing to act mysteriously naive, decides to fight back, and he ends up plugged, dead on the street.

Rather than speeding his way to an unearthly afterlife, however, Sam finds himself stuck, if spectrally, on earth. While the exact explanation for Sam’s continued ghostly presence on the earth is properly vague and opaque–a visit with a subway-haunting, quintessentially New York spirit (Vincent Schiavelli) leaves Sam instructed in his ghostly powers but not in the nature of his effervescence–the plot is almost distressingly clear, and long before Sam catches on, audiences should wise up to the fact that his death was no coincidence but tied directly to his discovery of some shady cash transactions at work. In fact, the chief villain is revealed even before the crime is committed, in one of those excruciatingly obvious tip-offs directors and screenwriters employ when they want to fend off retrospective charges of manipulation.

However, Sam’s struggles to find an agent to help him solve his own murder are unpredictably hilarious while still thrilling, thanks in no small part to Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg plays crooked Brooklyn psychic Oda Mae Brown, lassoed into Sam’s project when he accidentally stumbles into her storefront parlor. Muttering imprecations at her cheap but effective psychic scam, Sam is nearly as surprised as the shocked and shook Oda Mae that she–and only she–can hear him.

Together the two–with occasional help from a half-believing, half-disparaging Molly–set out to foil his attackers with a dexterous combination of con and ghostly caper. Most of the gags depend on the dazed reaction of humans who can see Oda Mae talking and responding to an invisible, unheard Sam; but, amazingly, Zucker and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin manage to work a wide enough range of variations on this device to keep the harmonic interplay fresh. Perhaps their success is due to Zucker’s casting of so many comic performers in “straight” roles.

Besides Schiavelli, there are comic Rick Aviles as the vicious mugger, Second City veteran Bruce Jarchow limning a confused bank VP victimized by the vengeful Sam and Oda Mae, and Gail Boggs and Armelia McQueen providing a comic chorus as Oda Mae’s sisters and partners in crime.

Not only is the comedy itself fresh, but it keeps the suspense well-stropped as well. Even at the most terrifying moments–when Oda Mae is almost killed by the mugger, for example–the ever-present laughmakers keep upsetting the tonal expectations. Anything can happen, you might think, because any reaction is possible on the screen, from terrorized laughter to exasperated horror (Schiavelli’s ghost is Edgar Kennedy crossed with Boris Karloff).

All the good-natured and effective cross-playing ends, however, when it comes to the mushy parts. And despite their underripeness, they’re mushy indeed. For all the crying they do in each other’s presence, for all the protestations of love and lovey-dovey talk, Sam and Molly never really seem to have much of a relationship. The most human thing they do–as opposed to the most mammalian–is argue briefly over whether a favorite old chair of Sam’s clashes with Molly’s stripped-down decor, and even that exchange has the feel of being copped from either a screen-writing textbook or a furniture catalog.

Zucker seems dimly aware of this failing, and has hyped up Sam and Molly’s “romantic” moments, both with overdrive camera movements (overhead shots, caressing close-ups) and with the intrusion of the old Righteous Brothers song “Unchained Melody” on the sound track. Aside from following a general trend that equates great old songs of the past (anything by Sam Cooke, say) with bad old songs from the past (this one), the song’s presence is a bald attempt to exploit the audience’s nostalgia to provoke feelings that are otherwise beyond the filmmaker’s grasp. Add Maurice Jarre’s syrupy, overorchestrated reprise of the thin melody and you have just the kind of manipulation this movie so competently avoids when it comes to the more emotionally fresh suspense and comedy elements.

Of course, the comedy and suspense may work better because Zucker, the sly veteran of so much satire, may hold death to be the final gag. When the bad guys get theirs in Ghost, they only linger long enough to be grabbed by shadowy goblins who drag them to a waiting underworld. Their evil plans now blown up in their faces, they do everything but slap their foreheads, muttering “foiled again.” Lurking under the optimistic surface of Ghost is the conviction that all human endeavor is likely to appear foolish and misconstrued in the face of the finality of death, and it may be that dark reality, propelling both the terror and the humor in the film, that ultimately undermines the romance.