By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Lovers of love stories who, like true fans of baseball, enjoy the pastime whether minor or major league, will at least appreciate the attempt made by Mark Waters’s “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” Appropriating Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and replacing Scrooge’s miser with Matthew McConaughey’s womanizer, it has its albeit predictable moments.
An enamoring cast does a nice job of making the hopeless romantic in us want to believe. Especially Mr. McConaughey. While this isn’t the watershed performance that will set him on the road to one Oscar after the next, it is when he locates the sort of swaggering likeability that can very well make a movie star out of an average actor.
Equally fit for the fantasy at hand, Jennifer Garner is alluring as both the tale’s moral center and the objet d’amour McConaughey’s Connor Read stubbornly denies. But then the man doesn’t know a whole lot, except when it comes to philandering. There, the tragically orphaned, poor little rich kid turned famous fashion photographer is an expert.
The morally bankrupt Casanova learned the art of disingenuous wooing at the knee of his Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), whose ghost is the first to visit him on this, the momentous eve of his brother Paul’s (Breckin Meyer) wedding. At the estate where all have gathered, the droll specter warns his protégé of the other three that will follow.
You know the drill. The first visitant, the Ghost of Girlfriends Past, alights in the teenybopper form of Allison Vandermeesh (Emma Stone). Alas, the tawdry tale is told how, when tragedy befell, Connor shunned the true affections exhibited by Miss Garner’s Jenny Perotti and chose instead his uncle’s “painless” path of perennial conquest.
The expected string of empty relationships is surveyed, some funny, and some only reaffirming our cad’s need for revelation. Interspersing this review of the broken hearts with which Connor has littered the landscape are the pending nuptials’ star-crossed preparations. The main topic of conversation: Was it a mistake to invite the Lothario?
He is, after all, the bridegroom’s only living relative. A touching soliloquy by Paul, informing how Connor was a father to him, tosses a yeah vote in his corner. But emotions quickly sway to a nay when, Oy vey, the politically incorrect bad boy not only tramples the wedding cake, but also lets slip that bro once slept with one of the bridesmaids.
The result is a contemporary parlor comedy with too little humor to complement the bittersweet farce of Connor Mead’s trial by apparition. Subtlety of the Noel Coward kind would have been in order. But this is in such high relief…the randy bridesmaids, a war-loving father-of-the-bride named Sarge, and a hysterical bride whose harangues deafen.
Still, a half-dozen legitimate reasons to guffaw combined with Miss Garner’s charming portrayal of the winsome M.D. who truly understands this self-centered rake, practically a subtext unto itself, lends a warm, temporary credibility to matters. We visit the innocent nascence of their relationship.
Carefree on the grounds of Uncle Wayne’s manor, Connor and Jenny frolic. She gives him his first camera. He takes her picture and says he’ll keep it forever. Sigh, we just have to believe in the Don Juan’s redemption. Then again, his ethereal mentor’s 180- degree heads-up notwithstanding, one wonders if the debaucher’s imprint can be undone.
Mr. Douglas is atypically weird as the cheesy, misanthropic wraith. Grabbing the reins of Connor’s distraught emotions in perhaps the only way he knew following the calamity, he taught the philosophy of brazen self-indulgence. Fast-forward and the wolf he has created unabashedly mixes business with pleasure…a lecher snapping pics of his prey.
Funny only in its exaggerated distastefulness, Connor’s wanton caricature soon grows tiring. It’s obvious the film’s salvation is dependent on his. Unfortunately, it’s as if there were only budget enough for one good visitation. While Emma Stone’s time traveling phantom proves a fine first host, the next two ghosts aren’t nearly as transporting.
Meanwhile, back at the manse, where it’s now even money whether or not there will in fact be a wedding, cacophonous quibbling, slapstick and racy innuendo try to compensate for the lack of a higher caliber wit. This includes Connor’s attempt to seduce the bride-to-be’s sultry, divorcee Mom (Anne Archer) between spectral admonishments.
Expect no surprises. Pilfering Dickens’s plot represents the extent of screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s creativity. Director Waters one-ups them by wowing us even less. Thus, although “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” does contain some amusing notions about love, discerning viewers will postpone the séance until the DVD materializes.
“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” rated PG-13, is a New Line Cinema release directed by Mark Waters and stars Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Michael Douglas. Running time: 100 minutes