Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – Plus Bonus Rant!
June 10, 2009
As a completely scattered, off-the-top-of-my-head, and totally unresearched thought, I’m wondering if my abiding affection for rom-coms stems less from their idealized representation of the love-conquers-all world, or their generally light, comforting formulaic model, but rather the feeling that they’re the last holdover from a bygone Hollywood era. They are produced and function like films from the days of old – assembly line, workmanlike, same but a little different… Musicals are few and far between, the action genre has become a series of overblown blockbuster tentpole events, and melodramas have been largely relegated to telefilms or Oscar bait (take a bow, Crash). The rom-com seems to be the most sustainable business model of the industry. Fairly cheap to produce, driven by the Star System like no other genre, and a built-in audience (women, of course) that tends to be ignored by the studios who believe young men is where the money lies (though, in recent years, the thinking is finally starting to catch up with reality). Dependable escapism is the order of the day, and the sheer simplicity of the pleasure is probably why I get more enthusiastic than I probably should for these films. All that really means nothing when it comes to The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which on its own is in no way special or interesting. In fact, most of it is flat-out bad. But while it is most certainly not the film to spark off any discussion whatsoever on an entire genre, it does nicely establish a general middle area of quality expectation. Far from the best, it is also not the worst of its kind. It isn’t the breakout box office success of a Devil Wears Prada nor does it have the relentless charm of a Never Been Kissed, but it isn’t as completely unwatchable as Made of Honor.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Connor Mead, a photographer for Vanity Fair and a raving misogynist cliché for everyone else. He’s the kind of ‘crazy bro’ that endagers the life of his pop star subject to get a picture (Annie Leibovitz would struggle to get the insurance for that shoot), then beds her just after breaking up with three women at the same time in the same room via conference call. Yes, he’s a real charming bastard, but I have to give credit to the film; McConaughey usually plays these kinds of characters, but rarely are they so relentlessly awful, as his speech about the sadness of love at his brother’s wedding rehearsal demonstrates. Oh yes, there is a wedding, and he’s the best man. At this wedding, he’s visited by the ghost of his equally sexed up Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas, relishing these kinds of supporting roles these days), who informs him he will be visited by three ghosts a lá Dickens. Through the course of the night things will get worse, hijinx will ensue, and maybe he’ll learn a little something and change his ways, especially as his childhood friend and The True Love of His Life Jenny (Jennifer Garner) is the maid of honour.
There’s nothing really surprising about anything that happens, but that’s part of the joy of the rom-com. The longest sequence of the film is the visit from the Past (Emma Stone) and the recounting of how he came to be the way he is. Orphaned, heartbroken, and afraid of commitment, Mead is right out of the rom-com playbook. This is easily the best part of the film, and perhaps the only part that provides anything truly interesting and enjoyable. There are bits within it, including a meta-joke about a montage, that flirts with raising the material above expectations, and it is both amusing and, to a degree, moving. It’s obvious that the writers and director found this to be the most interesting part of the story, as the rest of the ghosts and everything that follows feels rushed and a bit by-the-numbers in comparison. The sequence is immediately followed by the kind of slapstick set-piece that feels like it should be in a different film altogether, as they though they had an amusing idea for a scene and just shoe-horned it in.
And such is the film as a whole. To its credit, the ‘comically’ nerdy groomsmen are rarely present enough to be too annoying, and Robert Forster as the Korean War vet father-of-the-bride does just enough to be funny where he can, even if the filmmakers are bent on ruining it with the sound of rolling snare drums simmering beneath every one of his speeches. Garner does well with a one-dimensional role, but her moving, sensitive turn in Juno proves she should be working with much better material. McConaughey can (and, to a degree, does) sleepwalk this role, as he only seems interested in picking up the paycheck these days. His ‘bro’ stylings are a little tired at points, but they never detract so much that they ruin the film. Everyone here, save Michael Douglas (who is having so much fun it is infectious), does just enough to not ruin the venture without elevating it beyond what it is.
Rarely funny, unabashedly mediocre, but perfectly watchable; that’s the film in a nutshell. There are far better examples of the high concept rom-com (Koepp’s Ghost Town comes to mind), but this is hardly the worst thing we’ll see this year. Effective but unaffecting counter-programming for the summer season is, sadly, about all we can expect at the moment. It really is pretty bad, though.
There is an entire subplot involving the three bridesmaids all desperate for sex with Mead. They know him, they know what he’s like, and yet, like every other women in the film, they still want to have sex with him. I appreciate this kind of sexually liberated female representation. They are seen as comically foolish and are written as very one-note, but they do acknowledge his function as a piece of meat. But when their plans fail, they run to whatever is around (specifically, the nerdy groomsmen). Why are females with a healthy desire for sex seen as mostly shallow and cast-off? On that same note, Jennifer Garner is reasonable, smart, accomplished, and attractive. Why does her character exist solely to wait for Mead to grow up and become monogamous? I find it amazing that in a film that is produced and released solely for something that women can go see in the male-dominated action extravaganza summer period portrays women so poorly. I think of the first season of Mad Men, which featured Rosemarie DeWitt as a cool, confident, and sexually liberated mistress for the main character Don. She’s smart, funny, every bit the match for the leading man, and yet she is capable of sensitivity and love (and for a character that is not Don, to boot). Why can’t Hollywood incorporate these kinds of characters into their assembly line rom-coms? And why aren’t more women furious at their representation in the films that are supposedly ‘for’ them?