Friday, May 1, 2009

Review: "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past"

I'm not going to lie: I went into this movie kind of expecting to loathe it. But Jean wanted to see it, and now that I'm not playing World of Warcraft I have to find ways to fill my evenings, so off we went to the promo screening.

I was pleasantly surprised. The last few Matthew McConaughey romantic comedies have been just terrible, to the point that I avoided "Fool's Gold" like the plague (along with, apparently, most everyone else). "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" actually manages quite a few laughs, some genuinely tender moments in the latter half, and to keep McConaughey's dude-ish acting tendencies in check.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been shocked, since upon looking over the film's credits I see that the director is Mark Waters, who made the wonderful "Mean Girls" a few years ago.

The story is a takeoff on the old Ebenezer Scrooge tale. Instead of being a miserly old businessman, McConaughey is Connor Mead, a celebrity photographer and the ultimate ladies' man. That term, ladies' man, is perhaps not the most suitable, since Connor most definitely belongs to himself and no one else. He has had hundreds of girlfriends, most of them for just a few weeks, and juggles them so capriciously that in one of the movie's early scenes he breaks up with three of them at once via video conference call. The man is efficient, if nothing else.

Connor is following in the footsteps of his Uncle Wayne, played as a ghostly apparition by Michael Douglas, decked out in perpetual sunglasses and slicked-back hairdo a la Robert Evans. Uncle Wayne got filthy rich, built a mansion and drove a Cadillac with a license plate that says "Stabbin' Wagon." Now he's returned from the grave to show Connor the error of his ways, via visits from ghosts representing girlfriends past, present and future.

Emma Stone has a hilarious turn as the first ghost, who wears braces and disturbingly accurate '80s garb. She was Connor's first conquest as a teen, and she takes him on a journey though all the women he's hurt.

At first, Connor misses the point of the exercise, such as when he watches the scenes of Uncle Wayne (not the ghost, a flashback of the real thing) tutoring him how to use and dispose of women. "The man was a legend," Connor remarks with awe. "Do you know he invented the term, 'milf'?"

But eventually Connor learns that he's spent his life hiding from pain, chiefly in the form of Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner, doing a lot with an underwritten role), the girl he grew up with and was dumped by. Jenny and Connor are both in the wedding party of his brother, which is a huge opportunity for Connor to drink too much, decry the value of marriage, and chase a little bridesmaid tail.

One of the things that I liked most about the movie is that it is self-aware. It knows the constraints of the romcom genre, and happily acknowledges and comments upon them. For example, at one point Emma Stone's ghosts introduces the next scene: "Now we're going to watch a romantic montage of you and Jenny set to Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time.'"

Who would have guessed that "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" would be the best movie coming out on May 1?

3 stars out of four

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