[1 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.