David Harbour stars as an apparition haunting a family’s home in this supernatural Netflix comedy.
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By Amy Nicholson
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The screenwriter and director Christopher Landon (“Happy Death Day”) will nevermore shudder at a bump in the night. Henceforth, it will just be specters thanking him for “We Have a Ghost,” a cheery kids comedy heavily syruped with pro-ghoul propaganda. Gauging from his appearance, Ernest (David Harbour) — a kindly, nonverbal ghost so named for the embroidery on his bowling shirt — died during the Nixon administration. Since then, Ernest has done spirit fingers in the attic of a cartoonishly spooky three-story Queen Anne, although the creepiest thing about him is his combover.
The gag is that Ernest’s scares are no match for the Presleys, a modern family of the internet age — the demographic of the film’s intended audience, although its ideal viewers will dial down their cynicism and play along. When a Realtor (Faith Ford) hoodwinks the Presley clan into buying the place — “Nothing a little landscaping couldn’t fix,” she coos — the younger son, a shy teenager named Kevin (Jahi Winston), embraces Ernest like a rescue mutt. Kevin’s father, Frank (Anthony Mackie), and older brother, Fulton (Niles Fitch), however, want to use him to get rich and famous. Frank’s rap sheet of cash-grab gimmicks has already dissipated respect for him in the home; even so, he fares better than the kids’ mother, a character so underwritten she’s practically vapor. (Worse, the lead part of Kevin is almost as lifeless.)
Landon’s tale, based on a snarkier short story by Geoff Manaugh, presents Ernest as the first viral video proof-of-afterlife — an odd situation for an unassuming chap who passed away before the invention of Pong. Before you can say “Boo!” Ernest becomes a meme, a stunt challenge, and a cause célèbre among TikTok do-gooders (“Just because you’re not made of matter, it doesn’t mean you don’t matter”). He’s also a target for a C.I.A.-connected paranormal researcher, Dr. Monroe (Tig Notaro), out to boost her own clout.
The film grasps onto anything that will amuse itself for a scene: a stalker dressed like Jesus, a nifty car chase, an unconvincing romance between Kevin and his wacky neighbor Joy (Isabella Russo), who blasts energy into the film as soon as she enters blaring a slide trombone. Jennifer Coolidge also has a cameo as a blasé cable TV medium who visits the house and waves off Ernest as a hologram until he rattles the furniture and melts the skin off his face. These high jinks are so carefree about coherence that during this rampage, we hear the screech of a terrified cat. Do the Presleys own a cat? No.
Conveniently, Ernest’s personality has been wiped by a case of necrotic amnesia that allows this Greatest Generation ghost to pal around with today’s teenagers. In life, Ernest might not have been their first choice to babysit. In death, he’s graced with the empathy of E.T. — and when he makes contact with Notaro’s character, the world-weary doctor melts into a state of wonder as dewy as when Sam Neill made goo-goo eyes at a brachiosaur. How delightfully morbid to give the netherworld a Spielbergian gloss. For his next trick, Ernest can study some scare tactics in the Temple of Doom.
We Have a Ghost
Rated PG-13 for language, suggestive references and violence tied to Ernest’s untimely death. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. Watch on Netflix.
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