Thursday, April 30, 2009

Movie review: 'Ghosts' just so much conformist humbug

Jennifer Garner, Lacey Chabert, Breckin Meyer
and Matthew McConaughey
in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.

By John Thomason

Of all of Hollywood’s thirtysomething adolescents, Matthew McConaughey has always looked the most frattish, with his tousled hair, three-day facial fuzz and surfer’s smile.

Somehow, women have found his patchouli-flavored apathy irrepressibly charming: He was People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2005.

And in all of his successful romantic comedies, this perpetual teenager needs the help of a woman to grow into maturity. He’s built an onscreen persona as a shiftless chauvinist who practically begs to be neutered be a proper woman. How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and Failure to Launch have birthed a similar character in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a tired reimagining of Charles Dickens’ endlessly reimagined A Christmas Carol.

Here, the sin is not miserliness but misogyny. McConaughey’s Connor Mead is a womanizer who has built a philosophy on the rejection of monogamy, spooked – literally—at the idea of settling down with one woman. We first see him breaking up with three women simultaneously in bulk, as he calls it – over the Internet. It takes the help of three ghosts – of girlfriends past, present and future – to make him see the error of his ways and realize his long-lost love for his grade-school sweetheart, Jenny (Jennifer Garner). This all goes down on the eve of Connor’s brother’s wedding, which he risks derailing with his every action.

Bah, humbug.

There are a few bright spots in the supporting cast, classically trained actors paying the rent in a project several notches beneath them. There’s Michael Douglas, hammy but fun as the Marley-like ghost of Connor’s playboy uncle who sets the paranormal shenanigans in motion; Robert Forster as a retired army sergeant-turned-ordained minister who plans weddings like troop rotations (a cute conceit while it lasts); and Anne Archer as a buxom milf and one of the few women in the movie to resist Connor’s advances.

Indeed, most of them women in the movie, from the bridesmaid bimbos to the Connor’s parade of nameless exes, are either hot bodies waiting to be screwed or overly emotional tripwires set off by the slightest misdirection. Feminists would hate it if the film didn’t present as many equally offensive guy stereotypes.

I hate it for different reasons. At the film’s heart is a fundamental orthodoxy that states that marriage (and by extension a white picket fence, a two-car garage and 2.5 kids) equals normalcy, and that deviation from this preferred way of living will cause naysayers to live and die alone and miserable. Hedonists, take caution!

Of course, Connor is an ass, and his extreme anti-marriage views aren’t to be condoned. But they aren’t to be excoriated, either. He shouldn’t be an Other, a deviant just waiting to be conformed by the right woman. Hollywood is driven by blanket progressivism, but reactionary studio romcoms like this are propaganda for the hearth and home, reminders that in the movies, happy-ending wish fulfillment can only be achieved through monogamy.

Much of the offensiveness I find in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past could have been quelled or even negated if the film were funny enough to distract us from what it’s really saying. But it elicits only sporadic chuckles, and only at the expense of the peripheral characters.

Like another recent supernatural comedy, Ghost Town, the film’s premise is very mid-'90s,and predictable every step of the way even if you’re one of the two or three people on Earth who haven’t read, seen or listened to any of the myriad remakes of Dickens’ novella. The plot is so inevitable that you almost wish the movie wouldn’t go through the ghostly motions and throw at least one wrench into the tired mechanics of it all.

You can bet that in his grave, Dickens isn’t rolling over so much as yawning.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST; Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster and Anne Archer; Director: Mark Waters; Studio: New Line; Opens: Friday; Venue: Most commercial houses

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