Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past: A Dickens of a time

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) • View trailer for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, profanity and drug references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.09
Buy DVD: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past • Buy Blu-Ray: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past [Blu-ray]

Roughly halfway into Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Matthew McConaughey's wincingly self-absorbed Connor Mead, having unwisely chosen to attend his younger brother's weekend wedding celebration, flees into the family estate's kitchen in serve of alcoholic solace.

One popped champagne cork later, Connor is desperately trying to save the elaborate wedding cake, because the flying cork dislodged one of the all-important little plastic columns that supports the various layers.
Having taken an express-train trip into his own past, Connor (Matthew
McConaughey, rear right) is forced by the Ghost of Girlfriends Past (Emma
Stone, rear left) to re-experience the life-changing moment when his teenage
self (Logan Miller, foreground left) decides to "study women" by following
the advice of his hedonistic Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas). Nothing good
will come of that: One must take great care when selecting a role model...

McConaughey stands, frozen, one hand balancing the cake, as he s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s a leg in an effort to snag something  anything  with which to replace the missing column.

The tableau holds: We wait, breathlessly, as Connor's panic mounts.

And then director Mark Waters does an amazing thing.

Rather than let the scene reach its inevitable conclusion before our eyes  a moment of gloppy slapstick that would have been typical of the lowest-common-denominator comedy with which Hollywood is plagued these days  Waters cuts to the story's other characters, chatting in an adjacent room. We hear a crash and Connor's strangled moan of frustration ... but the details are left to our imagination.

Which is as it should be.

This example of savvy restraint is typical of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which is a great deal wittier, and much more clever, than one would expect from McConaughey's other recent, similar (and disappointing) romantic comedies. Credit also goes to writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who have riffed Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with a skill that bespeaks considerable awareness of their source material.

Although one is reflexively inclined to dismiss this gimmick as little more than a one-sentence high concept  "Unrepentant babe-hound gets his just desserts while being confronted by his egotistical past and likely future"  Lucas and Moore honor Dickens throughout their screenplay, while updating the central premise in a manner that makes it just as relevant today.

I was impressed, and pleasantly so. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is shrewd and entertaining.

McConaughey's Connor is a wildly successful celebrity photographer who, with virtually no belief in the institution of marriage or even the concept of love, has plunged with gay abandon into the willing arms of the scores of beautiful young women who surround him on a daily basis. His little black iPhone overfloweth so spectacularly that he routinely forces assistant Melanie (Noureen DeWulf) to make excuses.

Worse yet, wanting to spend the night with his newest conquest, Connor employs a conference call to simultaneously blow off three other women.

(One could complain about this film's depiction of so many women as no-esteem sluts cheerfully willing to hit their backs on Connor's behalf, but in fairness the story also grants equal time to a bit of balancing girl power.)

Connor's behavior is atrociously, overwhelmingly awful, and it just gets worse. Having chosen to join the pending nuptials of his only surviving blood relation  devoted younger brother Paul (Breckin Meyer), about to get hitched to the nervously high-strung Sandra (Lacey Chabert)  Connor finds the whole tulle- and flower-laced environment to be more than he can stand.

He thus delivers a liquor-fueled tirade denouncing marriage and everything it stands for: a heart-stopping stunner of a speech that leaves Connor looking absolutely and utterly irredeemable.

We hate him. We well and truly despise him.

Just as, Dickens fans will realize, we similarly detested Ebenezer Scrooge at that moment he greeted two gentlemen, collecting for the poor, with the observation that poverty cases unable to find refuge in prisons or workhouses should simply die and "decrease the surplus population."

The rest follows the inevitable pattern. Connor first encounters the ghost of his deceased Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), the randy and self-indulgent Sybarite whose behavior served as such a shining example. In death, Uncle Wayne has learned the error of his ways, and warns that Connor needs to clean up his act.

The rest of the ghosts follow in due course: Girlfriends Past, represented by 16-year-old Allison Vandermeersh (Emma Stone, quite a hoot); Girlfriends Present, a surprise appearance by Melanie, who while never having shared Connor's bed, is in the best position to critique his current behavior; and Girlfriends Future, a silent ethereal beauty (Olga Maliouk) who has nothing good to share.

The constant focus of Connor's various stops along his lifeline is Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner), the childhood friend who should have been his first sweetheart, but for circumstances, and who has remained at the fringes of his life ever since. Indeed, Jenny is part of Paul and Sandra's wedding party, and her presence  prior to Connor's otherworldly visitations  definitely adds to his growing discomfort.

Whether a teenager or an adult, Jenny always has hoped for Connor's better instincts to emerge; alas, he has disappointed her too many times, as we learn  and as he is reminded  by the many ghostly visitations. The effervescent Garner gives Jenny all the necessary, fully dimensioned layers absent from Connor's many one-night stands: This is a woman to respect and cherish, particularly since  with no good reason for doing so  she remains so tolerant of Connor's failings.

McConaughey, for his part, so successfully nails this role as narcissistic jerk that one can't help worrying about the degree to which he might be drawing from real life. It's a far better role, and McConaughey does better things with it, than the similar characters he played in Failure to Launch and Fool's Gold.

The supporting players are memorable in their own right. Anne Archer is a smoldering delight as Sandra's saucy mother, and Robert Forster is a hoot as Sandra's militarily overbearing father. Rachel Boston, Camille Guaty and Amanda Walsh are appropriately daffy as lustful bridesmaids Deena, Donna and Denice.

Stone is simply hilarious as the Ghost of Girlfriends Past, although it's disappointing to see so much of her character lifted from Carol Kane's parallel role in 1988's Scrooged. Allison Vandermeersh doesn't need to mimic business from some other movie; she  and Stone  have ample potential of their own. This is one of the few times Lucas and Moore's script fails to be as creative as it could be.

References to Dickens are sprinkled throughout: Look closely during one scene, and you'll spot Fezziwig's Bookstore. The film's hands-down best line, though, comes after Connor's realization that  as with Scrooge  the ghosts have done all their work in one night. Connor throws open his bedroom window to a glorious morning, spots a boy shoveling snow below, and ... ah, but that would be telling.

Having almost given up on McConaughey's ability to make another good romantic comedy, I was agreeably surprised by Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. It's smart counter-programming for those seeking an alternative to the action-oriented Wolverine, and I suspect it'll also be a popular DVD purchase. As with those in A Christmas Carol, these Ghosts bear repeat viewing.

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