"Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" is an amusingly sentimental whiff of a romantic comedy, a modern-day morality tale that is a little "It's Not Such a Wonderful Life" and a lot "A Very Un-Christmas Carol." Instead of Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey despairing over a life lived in service to the greater good, we have Matthew McConaughey as a man relishing a life lived in service to the greater bad.
So essentially it is McConaughey once again playing to type -- this time as high-end fashion photographer Connor Mead, happily breezing through more women than you'd find in the Manhattan phone book. A webcam breakup with three girls at once is possibly the worst of it. Did I mention there are no angels here?
But lest you dismiss "Ghosts" as just another frothy sexual romp for the sun-kissed, ab-sculpted star, there is an actual cautionary tale here. For Connor, it's the painful realization that being an unrepentant playboy might not be the best life plan. For McConaughey -- and this is as clear as the digital wide-screen picture in front of you -- it's the hard truth that his young hunk days are ending.
In "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," the occasion of his brother Paul's (Breckin Meyer) wedding kicks things off as the dearly departed return to force Connor to question his life in the fast lane. (Why is it that friends and relatives, dead or alive, choose weddings to settle old scores?)
Soon Connor is on a travesty tour of all the women he has wronged -- they are legion -- conducted primarily by the tag team of Connor's late Lothario/mentor, Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), and the first girl he slept with, Allison Vandermeersh (Emma Stone). This is where the movie hits a low with its endless tales of his mindless seduction of, let's just call them the disposable femmes. A little nuance would have gone a long way. And whoever put McConaughey in that really bad shoulder-length hair piece (or extensions, whatever) for his trip down memory lane should be banished from blow-dry land forever.
Back in the real world, Connor is having to deal with his childhood sweetheart Jenny -- a smart and sassy Jennifer Garner -- who's running point as the maid of honor. She is serious about this wedding, and he is seriously not. Sparks fly, and they're not just the bad kind. McConaughey and Garner are a lot of playful fun together, good counterweights of sense and nonsense as would-be loves, and the temperature rises every time they're on screen together.
The movie takes its time working through all of Connor's arrested development issues. While he's busy with that, including figuring out whether he still cares for Jenny, a clever, handsome and available physician named Brad (Daniel Sunjata from "Rescue Me") enters stage right. A rival, and then the possibility of redemption when the ghosts of girlfriends present and future join the party. Connor may not see where all this is going, but we definitely do.
Director Mark Waters, whose nice touch made "Mean Girls" and "Freaky Friday" engaging, has his work cut out for him here, though everything gets better when the story from screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore moves into the meaty center and Connor begins to see who he really is, what he might lose and how he must change.
This is also where it gets all fuzzy between McConaughey and Connor, when that thin line between actor and character nearly disappears. That is a strength and a weakness -- as it is, people tend to buy tickets to his movies not because they're terribly intrigued by the plot but because they want to see Matthew McConaughey. It's not like anyone expects him to disappear inside his characters and do a "My Left Foot." It's the irascible hunky charmer with the dipped-in-rye, uh, -wry Texas twang that is McConaughey -- on-screen and off -- that brings them through the doors.
But heading into his 40s, McConaughey can't rely on that anymore, at least not without it becoming painful for the rest of us. If we needed any foreshadowing, "Ghosts" offers it up in Douglas' Uncle Wayne, still clinging to his player rep and pickup lines -- it is not a pretty sight.
Off-screen we're already seeing a transition, as the beach volleyball and beer have been replaced by the baby on his hip and the girlfriend at his side. There are moments in "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" that offer other colors too. A conversation Connor has with his brother's fiancee, played by Lacey Chabert, is one. As they talk, there is a new edge of maturity in McConaughey's voice, a deeper emotion pool he dives into and a sense as the scene plays out that he might just be someone to take seriously after all.
'Ghosts of Girlfriends Past'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content throughout, some language and a drug reference
Running time: 1hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In wide release