By KEVIN BOWEN
You know from that opening Google Earth shot – that one that starts in outer space, re-enters the atmosphere, hovers over a city, and ends on a street corner, always in New York – that you should not expect much from Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. That shot has turned into a cliché more quickly than any kind of shot in the history of film.
Actually, that awareness probably starts with that foolish title. It also emits from its status as a snowy Christmastime movie dumped in April. And then there’s the slight problem that it stars Matthew McConaughey, American film critics’ favorite punching bag when M. Night Shyamalan is on vacation.
So it’s a bit surprising that the film occasionally turns into, “well that’s kinda funny” territory. But only for a moment here and there. In between is a stocking full of stereotyping, misogyny, and a general case of creative swine flu. The film is completely detestable, but not entirely unentertaining.
So you would think everyone who heard the basic idea of the script would see ghosts and walk away. Although after that detour into Juno, Jennifer Garner’s return to her magnetism for bad scripts makes the stars feel back in alignment. The plot takes Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and turns Scrooge into a sex-addicted, love ‘em and leave ‘em celebrity photographer. Two guesses who plays that guy. Perfect for the season.
Connor Mead has a beautiful studio with near-naked models winging their way from set to set. Some of them – well, a lot of them – wander up to his studio after the camera quits. It’s there where he conducts his real business, like breaking up with three women on the same conference call.
On this winter weekend, though, his dorky brother is getting married in Connecticut, which in the movies seems to be the only state that still issues marriage licenses anymore. While there, he finds a group of bridesmaids whom he’s slept with. Perfect. Not so perfect – it includes his childhood love Jenny, a doctor who has never given up on him having a soul buried somewhere. She seems horribly invested in trying to drag out those hidden feelings that she just knows, knows, knows are really deep inside, and she wants to settle down with him in an old-fashioned romance.
Being that this is Hollywood, the idea of an old fashioned romance here has to be modified for the times. In a flashback, when Jenny forces Connor to perform a proper courtship, she holds out sexually until she tames him into a gentleman. For a whole three weeks. Just like your grandparents Henry and Ethel.
Of course, to get that old-fashioned romance, we have to welcome visits from a fleet of broadly comic ghosts. One of the ghosts is his dead playboy uncle (Michael Douglas), on the prowl in his giant Cadillac convertible, who looks like he hid from his sexual conquests by taking refuge in Dean Martin’s closet. The good news – it’s stupid, but at least it’s not boring.
Through the device of its bridesmaids, Hollywood also digs right in to its current reigning concepts of all women. The seemingly contradictory ideas that they’re sex-starved wildcats and all they think about is their wedding. In fact, the movie somehow manages the ultimate Hollywood alchemy by twisting these two clichés into the same characters!
So what’s good about this? Bits and pieces. It has the occasional really funny line that comes out of nowhere. Take for instance the moment when the teenage Ghost of Girlfriends Past shows him his brief relationship with Jenny in the 1990s. How? A slow-motion montage of the couple’s best moments. Lame. A slow-motion montage of the couple’s best moments set to “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper? Lamer. How about having the goofy brace-faced ghost look at the audience and say, “Now we’re going to watch a montage of your best moment with Jenny scored to ‘Time After Time’ by Cyndi Lauper?” Comedy gold. And McConaughey is a reasonably good physical comedian. There’s a pretty good little sequence with a collapsing wedding cake. And Robert Forster gives one of the funniest blood-and-guts soldier stories you’ll ever hear, at a completely inappropriate moment.
I do wonder if I have an unfortunate soft spot for McConaughey. I don’t seem to watch his films with the same sense of vengeance as others. Perhaps I appreciate star charisma, even when employed at a bottom-feeding level. Perhaps it’s a Dazed and Confused hangover. One thing is for sure, he keeps getting older while the lingerie models stay the same age.
With: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster and Anne Archer. Director: Mark Waters.