Matthew McConaughey has been in the public eye for 16 years now. A look back suggests his has been one of the oddest show-biz careers in recent memory. And I’m not even counting that whole naked bongo-playing business.?
Consider the quality of films he made in his early days. It comes as almost a shock to recall that he once appeared in pictures as acclaimed as Dazed and Confused (1993), Lone Star (1996), Amistad (1997), The Newton Boys (1998), and U-571 (2000). Because, as soon as the century changed, the type of work McConaughey did changed, too.?
Suddenly he was Hollywood’s go-to guy for chick flicks, romantic comedies such as The Wedding Planner (2001), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Failure to Launch (2006) and last year’s Fool’s Gold. In a decade, he’d sunk from collaborating with Steven Spielberg to costarring with Kate Hudson.?
Now, like clockwork, the actor has delivered his latest estrogen-fest, about which there is news both good and bad. The bad news is that a more predictable, by-the-numbers plot would be difficult to concoct. The good news is that the movie has nearly as many laughs as clichés.?
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, as you’ve no doubt surmised, borrows its central gimmick from Dickens. There’s a fairly established tradition in Hollywood of dressing up comedies and teen films with elements lifted from Shakespeare (for example, 10 Things I Hate About You), but this is the first rom com I’ve come across that boasts the author of A Christmas Carol in its DNA. Maybe Zac Efron’s next offering will update something from Dostoevsky.?
McConaughey stars as Connor Mead, a celebrity photographer who’s attained a level of celebrity himself. A lifelong commitment-phobe, he is as famous for his playboy lifestyle as he is for his camera work, though the film’s screenwriters (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) never manage to explain why seemingly sane women keep lining up to get dumped by him.?
In an early scene, Mead breaks up with three women at once via an online conference call so he can clear his schedule for a lusting pop singer, who watches him commit this unfeeling act without seeming to want him any less as a result. Next to the women in this movie, contestants on “The Bachelor” are paragons of self-esteem.?
The story revolves around a long weekend during which the wedding of Mead’s younger brother, Paul (Breckin Meyer), is scheduled to take place. The head bridesmaid, Jenny (Jennifer Garner), just happens to be Mead’s first love, the One He Shouldn’t Have Let Get Away. The womanizer plans to persuade his brother to save himself and call the whole thing off, but the ghost of their philandering Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) appears with plans of his own.?
The idea is that three spirits will visit Mead in the course of the night to teach him the error of his wicked ways — the ghosts of girlfriends past, present and future. Uncle Wayne’s hope is that by morning his nephew will realize he’s on a path that leads to loneliness and regret, a lesson he learned the hard-partying way.?
I can’t imagine anyone who sees this film failing to guess its outcome before the end of the opening credit sequence, so plot twists or unexpected developments of any sort are not what make it a moderately satisfying diversion. The script, as I say, has occasional moments of cheekiness, even a couple of laugh-out-loud lines. Director Mark (Mean Girls) Waters proves adept at switching gears from slapstick to tender romance, and the chemistry between McConaughey and Garner is sufficient to persuade the viewer to care about their characters for 115 minutes, even if they are barely two-dimensional.?
Other films — 1988’s Scrooged, for example — certainly appropriated the same source material to far more inventive effect, but it doesn’t really seem sporting to judge Girlfriends against those movies. McConaughey’s previous romantic comedies make for a fairer comparison, I think, and in that context, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is likely to exceed expectations. Frankly, I dreaded the prospect of sitting through it and was pleasantly surprised to discover the degree to which the humor outweighed the humbug.?