As a piece of entertainment Ghosts of Girlfriends Past fails. As a 100 minute deconstruction of the onscreen persona Matthew McConaughey has shaped over a career headed towards its third decade, however, it’s something else entirely. This is not a cogently structured narrative dramedy that begins and ends with the classically constructed rising and falling action. Rather director Mark Waters, and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, create an entire motion picture out of a succession of scenes in which the nose of an archetypal McConaughey character is summarily rubbed in the wreckage of the women he’s loved up and dumped.
The brilliantly sardonic Hollywood blogger Jeffrey Wells has written that “if the devil wanted to roam around and foster evil, he’d definitely pick McConaughey as host.” Wells goes on to attribute that assessment to the fact that “no actor on earth seems more vapid, and because vapidity, more than any other human quality, is what allows evil to succeed.” When considering the range of shirtless alpha male pretty boy hustlers that the actor’s played in everything from How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days to Fool’s Gold, it’d be hard to argue with Wells’ assessment.
As Ghosts of Girlfriends Past begins all signs point to it falling firmly in line with the defining themes of the McConaughey oeuvre. He plays Connor Mead, a misogynistic jerk who doesn’t believe in love, hates commitment and looks upon spooning in bed as the ultimate sign of weakness. He travels to Newport, Rhode Island for the wedding of his brother Paul (Breckin Meyer), also attended by former flame Jenny (Jennifer Garner), and proceeds to summarily ruin everything over the course of several hours. Fortunately for him four ghosts (including one played by a slumming Michael Douglas) show up just in time to take him on a journey through his less than illustrious personal history, pointing out the many instances of downright inconsiderate behavior that’s ruined his relationships with the most important people in his life.
There’s never any doubt that Connor will learn his lesson and learn it so quickly, and so profoundly, that he’s able to instantly transform from a sardonic playboy to Mr. Sincere, giving an earnest speech about the meaning of love. When the movie is not immersed in the character’s subconscious it’s almost unspeakably bad. The filmmakers stuff it to the brink with shrill stereotypes, as if making a point to compile all those characteristic of wedding movies. There are the single bridesmaids crazed by horniness but repulsed by the groom’s nerdy friends. There’s also the icy divorced couple, comprised of Paul’s big-breasted mother-in-law Vonda (Anne Archer) and his unhinged soldier/pastor father-in-law referred to only as Seargeant Volkom (Robert Forster). And let’s not forget Paul himself, the much put upon nice guy, and super needy bride Sandra (Lacey Chabert).
As if that weren’t enough, we get insipid dialogue by the truckload, characters that divulge personal secrets to strangers without concern and so many forced theatrical dramatics played out in wide shots that the movie periodically brings to mind bad community theater. McConaughey and Garner, both likable actors (and why wouldn’t the devil be likable?), generate no chemistry in their scenes at the wedding, in which he affects his usual sly manner and she pouts, or in the flashbacks to their brief relationship a decade earlier. Once the fantasy scenes abandon Connor’s past and start projecting into the future they begin to display the starchy sentimentality of Click or a particularly overplayed version of A Christmas Carol. Breckin Meyer in old man makeup = bad idea.
Until then, however, there is a certain risible kick to watching the ultimate ladies man get his comeuppance. Sending the character back through childhood and his awkward young adult years, showing the audience the creation of Connor Mead, and by extension Matthew McConaughey the playboy, shatters the self-absorbed adventurous hunk image the actor has by now played to exhaustion. As Connor looks on perplexed and ashamed at how clownishly he’s behaved one begins to fervently hope that the actor playing him take heed and start challenging himself again.