Ghosts of Girlfriends Past takes the three-ghosts-visiting-at-night element from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and installs it into your typical commitment-phobic-guy-learns-to-love romantic comedy. It’s a potentially interesting mash-up, but the final product shapes up to be nothing more than typical Hollywood dreck, one that forgets that romance needs to be earned, and that real life isn’t made up of stereotypes.
Connor Mead (Matthew McCounaughey) is a successful photographer who spends most of his time getting women into bed and then dumping them. He makes a trip back to the family home for his brother’s wedding, and from the moment he gets there, he sets out to convince his brother that marriage is the wrong way to go. He almost succeeds at completely ruining his brother’s wedding, but that night, he is visited by the ghost of his playboy uncle, who taught him everything he knows. His uncle tells him that he will be visited by three ghosts of girlfriends past, who will show him that past, present and future of his relationships, to show him the error of his ways.
It has been pointed out recently that the posters of the last few McCounaughey movies have all featured the exact same pose; McCounaughey back to back with his leading lady, giving each other knowing sideways glances. The same knack for creative bankruptcy and needless repetition squirms its way into the movie, as it uses a century-old Dickensian trope to set up the same lazy character stereotypes in wacky situations. There are slutty bridesmaids, swinging old people, a bride that goes crazy at the mere possibility that the wedding might not be perfect, a military man who constantly talks about war, and women who fight for the bride’s bouquet. Like many Hollywood romantic comedies, it relies on typical slapstick wackiness to fill most of its runtime. It doesn’t even try to make sense, our hero apparently too dumb to realize that calling for help might be the best option in saving a wedding cake that he’s hold up by himself. This is really problematic since the movie does have something to say, and some real sentiment that’s worth exploring. But we never get there. Instead, it’s all just stereotypes and idioms as we amble our way to a conclusion that everybody already saw coming. We know exactly how events are going to turn out, and the movie doesn’t even try to tell that story well.
McCounaughey’s posters reveal pretty much everything that needs to be said about his acting nowadays. While he does have real acting ability, McCounaughey just slides back into playing the same character over and over again, the same rakish troublemaker that eventually learns to appreciate the love in his life. In theory, he has range, but in practice, it’s mostly just the same looks of confusion and smugness that inhabit his cookie cutter characters. Jennifer Garner has always been a bit limited, but she does a pretty good job of being the girl to root for. Breckin Meyer outshines his onscreen brother in any scene that he’s in.
When we get to the end, it’s pretty clear that Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has its heart in the right place, but it misplaced its head somewhere along the way. Like a lot of modern romantic comedies, it feels barely cobbled together, a whole lot of cheap dumbness and wackiness getting in the way of the romance that they’re so desperate to sell to the audience. There are two words in the term “romantic comedy.” It looks like Hollywood has forgotten how to be romantic.