Charles Dickens has a lot to answer for. “A Christmas Carol” is deservedly a classic—and has given us one classic film version (the 1951 Alastair Sim one, of course)—but it’s also served as the inspiration for quite a few dreadful imitators (just think “Scrooged”). This is one of them.
It may be difficult to recall, but there was a time not all that long ago when Matthew McConaughey seemed to have the potential to become a likable leading man. A whole series of wretched romantic comedies have destroyed that promise, and it’s extended with Mark Waters’ charmless concoction about a committed bachelor and modern Don Juan whose dead uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas)—a Lothario in his own day, who taught his orphaned nephew everything he knew about the ladies—visits him at his brother’s wedding and tells him he’ll be visited that night by the ghosts of girlfriends past, present and future. Their goal, of course, is to get him to reconsider his life and reorder his priorities, and in particular to go after the girl who’s obviously been meant for him since they were childhood buddies—Jenny (Jennifer Garner), whom he once unceremoniously dumped but is conveniently the maid of honor at bro’s nuptials.
To be fair, there are a few reasonably amusing moments in the first ten minutes or so of the script by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (the unaccountably successful “Four Christmases”). It’s rather a stretch to accept McConaughey as a fabulously “in” fashion photographer named Connor Mead, but the character’s treatment of a pop music star during a shoot, along with his conference call breakup with three women at once and the digs from his disapproving secretary (Noureen DeWulf), is good for a few chuckles.
But when Connor arrives at his uncle’s Newport manse, where his younger brother Paul (Breckin Meyer) is to wed nervous Nelly Sandra (Lacey Chabert) and the plot kicks in, things get pretty much desperate—and desperately unfunny. Connor’s rants against love and marriage are meant to be amusing, one supposes, but they’re merely mean, and slapstick episodes—like the one in which he destroys the wedding cake—are terrible. (Breckin and Chabert are no help, with him impossibly bland and her irritatingly shrill.) So’s the sequence in which Mead comes on to the bride’s mother (Anne Archer).
One might expect the “ghostly” elements to be better, but they’re not. As first Wayne and then the spirits show up, there are flashbacks to Mead’s childhood and teen years—mostly comic, a few saccharine—and his earlier doomed dalliance with Jenny. There would seem plenty of opportunities for mirth in these, but the writing is third-rate, and the execution pretty poor. Emma Stone is especially annoying as the ghost of girlfriends past, a frizzy-haired schoolgirl who gives the teen Connor his first kiss. But even Douglas is defeated by dialogue that never rises above the totally uninspired.
As for McConaughey, he seems a couple of sizes too small in the charm department; it would have taken somebody with the sophistication of Cary Grant to make Connor Mead the sort of cad one could actually cotton to, and McConaughey certainly doesn’t provide it. Nor does Garner keep up her end of things; she can manage the weepy moments well enough, but she doesn’t have the comic chops for the broader episodes, and her scenes with Daniel Sunjata (of “Rescue Me”) as the guy Paul and Sandra aim to set her up with haven’t a trace of chemistry.
But Robert Forster gets a few laughs as the bride’s stern father, an ex-Marine who’s now a minister and will perform the ceremony but who can’t help talking in old military terms. It’s hardly top-drawer material, but he milks it for all it’s worth, and in a picture like this you have to take whatever you can get.
On the technical side “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” is good enough without being outstanding, though it has to be said that at times cinematographer Daryn Okada appears to have been stymied by the interiors; the result looks cramped. The exterior scenes go better, though one on a street between McConaughey and Douglas is positively creepy, and no degree of visual expertise can salvage it.
This crude reworking of Dickens was probably a bad idea to begin with, but it’s so haplessly done that it didn’t have a ghost of a chance.