Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past: Humbug

There is a moment near the end of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (GOGP) when a single tear rolls from Jennifer Garner’s right eye as she listens to Matthew McConaughey’s Big Speech of Wisdom and Repentance. The instant the tear falls, Garner makes a little twitch and it looks for all the world as if she has genuinely surprised herself. I would be surprised, too. For there is not much that is surprising in this remake of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by way of Hugh Hefner.

In fact, the makers of GOGP seem to have gone to unusual lengths to produce some of the unoriginality that appears in this film. Some degree of unoriginality goes with the territory here. This is a chick flick, and as with any established genre, it is practically required to offer up a standard list of narrative elements. In this case: the adolescent and unrequited romance, the pining young woman, the secretly unhappy object of her affection, the epiphany, the reconciliation. There is even the montage of relationship scenes, displayed to the soundtrack of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time—though writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore try to have their cliché cake and eat it too by making Emma Stone’s Ghost of Girfriends Past alert us to it.

But especially in the little things, Lucas and Moore have been downright lazy. Need someone to play a young Jennifer Garner? Easy: get the kid from 13 Going on 30. Need a setting for a romantic revelation? No problem: a swing set worked wonders for 13 Going on 30. Looking for a potential romantic partner for Garner’s character? How about Daniel Sunjata (The Devil Wears Prada)? He’s nice to look at, and he’s already played Garner’s would-be lover—on a Broadway stage in last year’s Cyrano.

There’s a laziness to the filming, as well. Much of the movie is shot indoors, in a mansion that is supposed to be on Long Island but that exists in real life in suburban Boston. I understand that it’s a winter wedding, but don’t these people get stir crazy? The interior scenes give the movie a murkiness that we associate more with a thriller. And no matter how widely Matthew McConaughey opens his eyes as he reads his lines, there is not much thrilling here.

The winter setting does provide the film with one of its handful of pleasing moments—and there are a few. Towards the conclusion of the film, McConaughey’s Connor Meade opens a window and does a perfect, word-for-word recitation of certain famous lines from Dickens’ Christmas novella (no, not those lines, thank god). It’s a nice touch—unnecessary, and a little clunky, but a sweetly humble hommage to the 19th-century writer who managed to be always original. Other appealing scenes involve a precariously balanced wedding cake and the flexibility of McConaughey’s left foot; Stone’s raucously sincere ghost; and Garner’s quietly funny and warm performance. She isn’t given much to do as Jenny Perotti, Connor’s childhood almost-sweetheart. It’s the Wry But Hurting character that she’s played, in variations, in Catch and Release and Alias (with kickboxing in place of wryness). But what she does, she does well. Garner needs to be given (or to choose) better roles fast. With a face that can go, Janus-like, from severe gorgeous to dimply sweet in nothing flat, she has the wherewithal to register a wide range of emotions and the restraint to make them appear sincere.

The same cannot be said for McConaughey, who doesn’t act so much as move. He speaks his lines—almost no matter what the situation—by fingering the air before him, as if searching for the teleprompter, all the while balancing himself with an arm outstretched behind him. He has spent too much time surfing. While GOGP demonstrates a moment of humility by citing Dickens’ text near its conclusion, McConaughey is always arrogant on screen. With one key exception: Tropic Thunder, in which, as Ben Stiller’s agent, he abased himself to hilarious effect, just to make his client happy. That trademark arrogance is in full force here. And even in the Big Speech that makes Garner cry—as well as certain audience members who were annoyed by their susceptibility—he just can’t play it straight; there’s the twinkle, the drawl, that draw attention to the actor and away from the role. Maybe someday someone will cast McConaughey against type and we will see what he can really do.

A review of GOGP would not be complete without comment on its status as a chick flick. Maybe a better term is romantic comedy—that’s certainly how Netflix is going to categorize it in a few months. But it’s difficult to know who Mark Waters and writers Lucas and Moore are trying to appeal to here. The release date in early spring confirms that it’s a light film, an entertainment. But the winter setting belies that notion, giving the movie not only those darkened, wood-paneled rooms, but also its theme of repentance. Not exactly breezy rom-com fare.

Then there’s McConaughey’s character. I won’t go so far as to describe the film as misogynistic (like its cousin Made of Honor), but Connor Meade is certainly an unappealing man who treats women badly. Ah, people will say, but the women like him that way; they seek him out; he is a legend. And what’s wrong with women having enormous sex drives, anyway? Can’t women enjoy a movie that shows other women trolling for wedding sex? Sure. But then why the infinite past girlfriends, arrayed in a reproachful line-up? Why the criticizing assistant who gathers three exes together like Furies pre-gaming revenge on Bacchus? Has Connor Meade behaved badly, or not? The director can’t make up his mind. Garner’s character tells McConnaghey he looks like a gay pirate (and this is not a compliment), and she works to reform him, but all along the way, GOGP expects its audience to have a grand time with Connor The Unreformed.

GOGP is that rare hybrid: the May/December movie. It tries to combine the darkness and self-questioning of a December movie with the tipsy, gauzy hedonism of a May flick. Unfortunately, this marriage doesn’t work.


  1. My wife cringes whenever Mr. McConnaghey shows up in a trailer or graces a magazine cover. You have to go back to Dazed and Confused to see what the Mac can really do (all laid-back cool and seductive surfer cluelessness--before his confidence turned into full-blown arrogance).

    Tropic Thunder is interesting because it's this huge Hollywood production skewering huge Hollywood productions, while simultaneously resurrecting failed Hollywood heavyweights like Tom Cruise and Nick Nolte, while giving Mr. McConnaghey a healthy dose of humility.

  2. I'm with your wife on that one--as I'm sure is obvious. I don't think I could bear to try out Dazed and Confused, but I'll take your word for it.

    I like your take on Tropic Thunder.

    It's a shame Robert Downey Jr. couldn't get an Oscar for that performance, which was just brilliant.