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by Bill Gibron

1 May 2009

Remember when Matthew McConaughey was the next big thing? Around the release of A Time to Kill, when he was the “it” actor bound for superstar glory. Of course, many of these publicity puff pieces ignored the fact that he had been in the business for about three years prior, offering memorable performances in Dazed and Confused and Boys on the Side. Since this media-based blitz, his celebrity has revolved more around what he does off the screen (Naked bongo playing? Recreational pharmaceuticals!) than the roles he originates. In fact, his recent track record has him rapidly becoming the slacker personification for RomCom retardation. Even with its Dickens’ inspired gimmick, his latest film Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is the same old stereotyping. It shows that McConaughey definitely understands his current passé place in the contemporary cinematic landscape, and will probably do very little to change it.

Connor Mead is a famous photographer. He’s also a well known ladies man. Only problem is, Connor treats women like casual sex objects only, never allowing his real sentiments to be revealed. It’s earned him the reputation as a major league jerk. When he accepts an invitation to be part of his younger brother’s wedding, Connor expects a certain amount of criticism. What he gets instead is the cold shoulder from old flame Jenny Perotti and a visit from his dead Uncle Wayne, a noted lothario who raised his orphaned nephew in his slimy, sleazy image. He warns Connor that he will be visited by three ghosts, spirits from his past, present, and future who will illustrate how wayward his view of the fairer sex really is. Of course, Connor doesn’t believe in spooks - that is, until they actually arrive, and explain how deep the feelings are between himself and his lifelong gal pal.

When it sticks to the interpersonal stuff, the emotional links between old lovers, close brothers, and the family that supports both, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is quite tolerable. In fact, it’s actually quite good at times, filtering the feelings we all have through a prism of practicality and believability. This isn’t a movie about cosmic connections or spiritual belonging. Instead, director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) and his writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (responsible for the reprehensible Four Christmases) want to show people acting like real individuals, relating in ways the seem familiar and yet can easily fit into their goofball gimmicky premise. Whenever McConaughey or costars Jennifer Garner and Breckin Meyer interact, their conversations resonate with a kind of common sensibility that really hits home.

However, whenever the Scrooge stunt takes front and center, Ghosts goes flat. Worse, it indulges in some of the most hackneyed hokum this side of a medicine show. Michael Douglas, looking like a spray tan version of producer Robert Evans, is all ham and no humanity as the bed hopping relative who lived his life like one big narrative from Penthouse Forum. A little of Uncle Wayne goes a long, long way, and Waters unfortunately overindulges in the character’s tail chasing tenets. By the time he tries to convince Connor that there really is no reason to love somebody fully, we’ve already had more than enough of his scotch-soaked hedonism. Similarly, Lacey Chabert’s borderline Bridezilla provides sporadic smiles, but none of the boffo bellylaughs the over the top performance seems to suggest.

Additionally, most of the physical comedy feels like padding, trailer-told sequences such as the wedding cake crash (or a last act chase to right a ridiculous wrong) coming completely out of another script. There are also attempts at visual panache that just don’t cut it, as when Connor visits an “endless” bar where his many conquests sit waiting to read him the romance riot act. The setting looks fake, the effect nothing more than grade school smoke and mirrors. When he wants to, Waters knows how to handle the fantastic. Everything revolving around Connor’s initial trip back, spearheaded by the iconic ‘80s idiocy of Emma Stone as our hero’s hapless “first”, has the air of knowing nostalgia and smarts the rest of the film severely lacks.

And still, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past does work…kind of. We want to see McConaughey and Garner together, the latter getting most of the good lines as a way to show her still hurting heart. We enjoy the affection the two brothers feel for each other, and Connor responds in interesting ways when he sees himself as a boy. When we get to the last act soul searching, the Christmas Carol shtick starts to get in the way and yet we still want these characters to be happy and whole. Perhaps we’re just projecting our own misguided youth on these far too familiar fictional characters, or looking to like something that really doesn’t deserve such judgment. Still, almost subconsciously, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past provides the requisite amount of enjoyment for its scant, superficial running time.

This is the kind of film that does make one wonder about the state of cinema dealing with adults and the real world problems that sometimes (mis)guides their affections. Stripped of its spectral aspects, this could still be a really good story, a Rachel Getting Married or Muriel at the Wedding without either of those films’ post-millennial self-serving irony. McConaughey has this kind of character more than down pat, and Garner gives good caustic. Meyer and the rest of the cast, when not going for the cartoonish, are also quite capable. In fact, the most miserable element here is the one that undermines almost any attempt to modernize or manipulate Dickens’ definitive original. There was really no need to spend times with the Ghosts in this look back at Girlfriends Past. The non-paranormal material carries the day, if just barely.   

by PopMatters Staff

1 May 2009

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
That would be Math Without Tears, by Roy Hartkopf. I was boning up on math, because I think it’s so important to be able to add and subtract when I’m on tour. Math is so painful to me; it’s like pulling teeth. But math is also so important to all of our lives. I also saw a commercial on TV several years ago for the Humane Society. It was about what a dog dreams of at night. It dreams of its owner, a very old man. Then you find out that the old man is dead and the dog is now in a cage at a dog shelter. It is very sad.

2. The fictional character most like you?
I would have to say Taras Bulba from that famous story by Gogol. I feel like the members of my band are like Taras Bulba’s sons. And he would do anything for them, just as I would do anything for my sons. If I had any.

by Sarah Zupko

30 Apr 2009

Juli Thanki praised Whitmore’s 2009 album Animals in the Dark and we gave it a 7. “Animals in the Dark is Whitmore’s most political album to date, with several songs referencing the troubles facing this country, a problem which Whitmore blames on authority figures who abuse their power… The album’s title comes from ‘Old Devils’, the strongest song on an album full of strong songs. Who are the old devils? Whitmore calls them, ‘Those animals in the dark / Malicious politicians with nefarious schemes / Charlatans and crooked cops.’” Whitmore recently stopped by Later…with Jools Holland for powerful performance of “Old Devils”. Plus, here’s a recent performance of “Who Stole the Soul”. Tour dates after the jump.

by Sarah Zupko

30 Apr 2009

British Sea Power were tapped to create the soundtrack for the upcoming DVD release of the 1934 documentary Man of Aran directed by Robert J. Flaherty. Rough Trade releases the accompanying album on 9 June. The band has performed the music at a host of UK events already this year. Sample a track below.

British Sea Power
“Come Wander With Me” [MP3]
     

by Rob Horning

30 Apr 2009

In the NYT yesterday was a brief item about a meeting of the American Association of Advertising Agencies—which has decided, perhaps in part because of advertising’s growing unpopularity with consumers, to rebrand itself as 4A’s. The article quotes the president of 4A’s:

“Our business is still fighting for more respect in the public sphere,” Ms. Hill said. “The common perception of our business in the United States continues to be so negative for so many people.”

The belief that simply renaming something removes the underlying structural problems that afflict it is basically everything that is wrong with advertising in a nutshell: The main premise of the industry is that every conceivable goal can be accomplished entirely through reputation and perception management. And consequently, it tends to recognize only those goals that suit such a program, fixing superficiality as an ideal. The success of the industry hinges on how seductive it can make that ideal.

So is it any wonder that consumers are wary of it. The NYT article also mentions this Harris poll (also noted by Rob Walker) that reports that among those polled, two thirds believe that advertising and marketing share some of the blame for the current economic malaise, because they encouraged people to buy things they couldn’t afford. The coverage of the poll linked to above attempts to dismiss this finding as Americans playing the bad old Blame Game, but that doesn’t wash. (This might be the most ridiculous claim I’ve ever seen: “Now, thanks to television shows like Mad Men and Trust Me, [advertisers] are slightly more visible and they are an easy scapegoat.” So people dislike advertisers more now that they are glamorized in TV shows? And Americans are so myopic that they don’t know what an industry does, or that it even exists, until it’s depicted on a show?)

Sure, the advertising industry isn’t responsible in the same way Wall Street is (though one shouldn’t forget the aggressive marketing campaigns of lenders and mortgage brokers over the past decade), and neither are imprudent consumers buying what they can’t afford, for that matter. But what the poll gets at is the climate of irresponsibility that people felt to be palpable, a climate that derives directly from the ideology that marketing must by its nature disseminate: namely that whatever we are doing is inherently inadequate, that we need more, that we shouldn’t be too secure in ourselves because we don’t really control that all-important surface that we present to people, for which the evaluative criteria are always changing. We distrust advertising because we sense that it is stripping us of our ability to desire, that it entices us to outsource our own motivation (it is far more convenienet that way), leaving us as shadows of ourselves. We see that we are giving it all away to avoid the very sort of effort we should be striving to find opportunities to exert.

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20 Questions: Rachael Yamagata

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