If Charles Dickens isn’t spinning in his grave, it’s only because Matthew McConaughey’s career is in the way. An uninspired pastiche of the tired and the well-worn, this agonizingly derivative new romantic comedy from director Mark Waters ( Mean Girls ) aims to put a hip new face on A Christmas Carol but instead delivers what looks more like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days with a botched facelift. Given the downward trajectory of McConaughey’s last few efforts in this field, lackluster audience enthusiasm should place it squarely at the low end of wide openers, with little (if any) added juice for subsequent weekends. Some redemption on DVD, however, is likely.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more abused, overused and misconstrued narrative construct than that of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, particularly when transplanted into modern-day situations. At the same time, it’s easy to see how one (or two, in the case of Four Christmases writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) could be attracted to the idea of using Dickens’ parable as a template to tackle greed’s more attractive cousin, lust. In concept it seems like a no-brainer—swapping out a miserly old codger for a dashing young womanizer makes both cinematic and commercial sense on paper, even if it ends up making no sense whatsoever on celluloid.
As celebrity photographer, Connor Mead (McConaughey), is a sexy, sexist Scrooge who shuns love and commitment in favor of no-strings-attached carnality. At the same time, he deeply loves his brother Paul (Breckin Meyer), agreeing to attend Paul’s wedding in the country even as he strenuously rejects the institution of marriage itself. But the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner bring him face-to-face with childhood flame/embittered ex-girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Garner), the one woman who repeatedly calls him on the kind of man he’s become because she, more than any other, knows the kind of man he could and should have been. As the tension spikes and the rehearsal evening degenerates into chaos, Mead is visited first by the ghost of his deceased Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas cum Jacob Marley). This oily Hefnerian swinger mentored him in his lascivious ways, informing him now that the Lothario life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Spooked but not convinced, Mead brushes the visitation off until the ghost of his first teenage conquest, Allison Vandermeersh (Emma Stone) shows up nostalgically accessorized with braces, ’80s hair and acid wash jeans jacket. As she takes him on a tour of his childhood, teenage years and early adulthood, Connor’s and Jenny’s tragic history—from friendship to love to disdain—is laid out as the primary mover behind every major misstep in his life. Subsequent visits from ghosts of girlfriends present and future (Noureen DeWulf and Olga Maliouk) finally hammer the point home—but will it be enough to save his brother’s wedding and win back Jenny’s love? Will Scrooge do right by Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim? Will George Bailey get it together and realize his life wasn’t a waste? Will Luke succeed at blowing up the Death Star? Will E.T. ever get home?
While it’s easy to be cynical about a film this derivative, it’s hard not to also feel deeply depressed at the effort. For Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is really a fusion of two genres, the other being the “player who learns to fall in love” brand of romantic comedy which McConaughey has almost singlehandedly defined (and exhausted) over the last nine years. He has played this exact part at least three times previously (the aforementioned How to Lose a Guy in 10 days as well as Failure to Launch and Fool’s Gold ), so it shouldn’t be any surprise that he does it supremely well, if not effortlessly. At the same time, watching an actor as undeniably talented as McConaughey—this is, after all, the man who once starred in Contact, Amistad and 13 Conversations About One Thing —squandering his skills in formula fluff when he should be in the prime of his career is simply too painful to dismiss.
In fairness, McConaughey is not the only talent wasted in Waters’ misbegotten effort—Garner, Stone and Douglas all deserve better as do supporting actors Anne Archer, Robert Forster and the very gifted Daniel Sunjata who is here used as little more than eye candy. But it’s McConaughey who allegedly facilitated the project’s resurrection after it previously failed to set sail with no less than Garner’s husband, Ben Affleck, originally attached. This was not a film McConaughey had to make—it was a film he wanted to make. Hopefully it’s not too late for him to once again want to make good movies and put his career back on a more distinguished trajectory where it belongs.
New Line Cinema
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Emma Stone, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert and Anne Archer
Director: Mark Waters
Screenwriter: Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Producers: Brad Epstein and Jonathan Shestack
Genre: Romantic comedy
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content throughout, some language and a drug reference.
Running time: 100 min.
Release date: May 1, 2009