Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" has withstood the test of time, as well as various spins and permutations, for one key reason: it is a great story. Speaking on the human condition and the passage of time in a universal way that anyone can relate to, the tale also offers a valuable message about it never being too late to turn things arounduntil it is. Life is fleeting, so what really counts are the decisions a person makes in the here and now. "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" puts a little corkscrew in the tried-and-true by replacing a journey through the Christmas holiday with a look at the countless relationships a womanizer has been in that have led him to his current unhappy spot, but it's a plot that still works. The film isn't as innocent and sweet as the original story, nor does it quite have the satiric bite of 1988's uproarious "Scrooged," but finds a happy middle between the two tones.
Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey) is a successful photographer who juggles so many women at once that he has to put three on a conference call together to break up with them. With his younger brother, Paul (Breckin Meyer), set to marry Sandra (Lacey Chabert) the following day, Connor begrudgingly travels to their childhood home in Newport just in time for the wedding rehearsal and dinner. He doesn't believe in love and doesn't believe in the institute of marriageopinions he makes very clear to whoever will listen. Reunited with one-time sweetheart Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner), the maid of honor to his best man, Connor is too stubborn to face up to the heartbreak he once caused her. Swooping in to help him see the error of his ways is Connor's deceased Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas)the Marley of the pictureand visitations from the respective ghosts of girlfriends past (Emma Stone), present (Noureen DeWulf) and future (Olga Maliouk).
Directed by Mark Waters (2008's "The Spiderwick Chronicles
"), "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" is a pleasing romantic comedy with a bittersweet undercurrent that goes with the territory of the premise. The first act, prior to the arrival of the Dickensian fantasy element, gets off to a disheartening start filled with cloying situations and broadly shaped characters. With the exception of a mischievously written scene between Connor and sensual mother-of-the-bride Vonda Volkom (Anne Archer), things were, so far, not looking up. Fortunately, with the mystical appearances of Michael Douglas' (2006's "You, Me and Dupree
") snatch-happy Uncle Wayne and Emma Stone's (2008's "The House Bunny
") brace-faced, 16-year-old ghost of girlfriends past Allison Vandermeersh, things brighten considerably.
The central conceits of the plot suddenly pull into focus, and the trip down memory lane for Connor is one both humorous and heartfelt. Faced with the ups and downs of his pre-teen and teen years, including his friendship and would-be romance with Jenny, Connor also is a spectator who gets to once again see his seven-year-old self with his parents the year before they passed away. It's a touching moment, and so is his trip into the present, guided by the ghost of Connor's assistant Mel (Noureen DeWulf), where he witnesses brother Paul stand up for him when the rest of the wedding party can only speak negatively about him. Finally, the walk into the future, guided by a silent blonde spirit (Olga Maliouk), is as grim as expected, better to prove the point that Connor must change his ways and recognize that Jenny is the love of his life.
Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (2008's "Four Christmases
") aren't above concocting predictable comical mishaps and conflictsConnor's wedding cake predicament comes instantly to mind, as it could have been easily solved if he had called for assistancebut they also find truth in the story of a man whose reluctance to get close to anyone has cost him everything but material possessions. As gum-popping Allison Vandermeersh takes Connor through the past and is amused by what she sees (including her own cameo as the girl who claimed Connor's virginity), Connor is treated to the turning point in his adolescencea stop at a bar with Uncle Wayne for some lessons on picking up chicksand his years-later romance with Jenny that left her bitter about ever trusting him again. There is a cute sequence that Allison introduces by saying, "Now we're gonna watch a montage of you and Jenny, set to the tune of Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time'," and some well-performed interplay between the colorful ensemble. Most important, the prospect of getting Connor and Jenny together by the end is one that the viewer wants to see happen. By this point, Connor has learned from his mistakes, and is a believably changed man. He has earned his own happily-ever-after.
Matthew McConaughey (2008's "Fool's Gold
") is ideally cast as the self-confident, borderline-smarmy ladies' man Connor Mead because, for all of his good looks and tempting swagger, he remains down-to-earth and identifiable. Connor isn't a bad person, just a misguided one. As Jenny Perotti, Jennifer Garner (2007's "Juno
") has a more thankless love-interest role, but she is still very good at what she has to do and has solid chemistry with McConaughey. The underrated Breckin Meyer (2006's "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties
") is terrific as Paul, his sibling bond with Connor well-established. In a part that could have been written as stereotypical and shrill, Lacey Chabert (2004's "Mean Girls
") instead plays Sandra with a welcome respect and levity. Michael Douglas and Emma Stone are blessedly good at delivering punchlines and bringing natural humor to their scene-stealing turns as Uncle Wayne and Allison Vandermeersh. So, too, is Noureen DeWulf (2006's "American Dreamz
") as Connor's harried assistant-turned-ghost-of-girlfriends-present Mel, though the attempts to mimic Carol Kane's role in "Scrooged" do not go unnoticed.
"Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" is more winning than not, an initially bland but gradually involving adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" that emotionally manipulates without forcing said emotions on the viewer. The wintry location shooting in Massachusetts adds personality to the setting, and director Mark Waters continues his knack for treating his characters like real people, or turning potential caricatures into something more than what is first perceived. He did this in 2004's superior "Mean Girls
," and he does it here. Without breaking new groundand keeping in mind that this has been a bad year for the genre"Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" nonetheless carves out a little place for itself as one of the few romantic comedies of 2009 that doesn't annoy or insult the viewer's intelligence.