Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

At some point in the early 2000s, Matthew McConaughey stopped being a likable, laid-back everydude and started being an insufferable douchebag who I want to punch every time I see him. Surely I am not alone in this. McConaughey’s self-effacing performance in “Tropic Thunder” made me think he was aware of how he is perceived, but here he is in “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” just as smarmy and mellow as ever, only now without satiric intent.

McConaughey plays an inveterate cad named Connor Mead, a fashion photographer who despises the institution of marriage and doesn’t believe in true love. What he believes in is sex — sex with as many beautiful women as he can get his hands on, sex with no commitment or obligations, sex with any attractive female who is willing to copulate with him.

His attitude toward women is fairly abusive, as is typical of romantic comedies aimed at female audiences. (Why female audiences enjoy that is a subject for another day.) When someone he’s photographing says she’s a singer, he replies, “You’re already gorgeous! Why do you need to be good at two things?” Later, he breaks up with three girls at once, all via webcam. The singer witnesses this and flirtatiously says, “You’re really as bad as they say!” To which he replies, “No, my dear, I’m even worse.”

We expect that the film will be about Connor realizing he needs to change his ways, but here’s what I jotted in my notes: Why reform when everyone likes him the way he is? Then I underlined it. Even women who think Connor is awful still sleep with him. In fact, they LOVE how awful he is. They throw themselves at him. He tells a woman to be upstairs in his bed, naked, waiting for him, and she rushes to comply. Why should he treat women more respectfully when his current system is working so well?

The film never answers that question, although it thinks it does. What happens is that Connor attends his brother’s wedding, where he tries to convince the groom, Paul (Breckin Meyer), that marriage is terrible. (See? He’s not just a bad boyfriend; he’s also a bad brother.) Appropriately, the bride, Sandra (Lacey Chabert), is a controlling bridezilla, in case we forgot that the movie thinks girls are icky. Also in attendance is Jenny (Jennifer Garner), Connor’s childhood friend and former sweetheart, and apparently the one woman on earth who has enough self-esteem to resist him (although just barely). Jenny calls Connor on his repulsive behavior, but her scolding doesn’t have much effect when all the bridesmaids have either already slept with him or are trying to.

Then Connor is visited by the ghost of his Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), who raised him and taught him the ways of the oily, over-tanned, dirty-martini-drinking lothario. Uncle Wayne was Connor’s role model, a total playboy whose life was devoted to scoring with broads. But now, in death, Uncle Wayne is repentant — no one misses him, you see. (Well, except Connor.) He died alone.

He tells Connor that he will be visited by three ghosts tonight, the ghosts of girlfriends past, present, and future, and they will show him the error of his ways. Only one of them, the one from the past, is an actual girlfriend, though. She’s a dorky spaz named Allison (Emma Stone), and she was the first girl Connor made out with, way back in high school. The ghost of girlfriends present is Connor’s no-nonsense personal assistant, Melanie (Noureen DeWulf), who has never been his girlfriend, and the one from the future is a Nordic-looking woman (Olga Maliouk) who doesn’t speak or identify herself. In other words, the film has ONE concept — a romantic-comedy version of “A Christmas Carol” — and it can’t even follow it correctly.

But anyway. Michael Douglas’ performance as the ridiculous old Uncle Wayne, the sort of ladies’ man who wears plush bathrobes and giant 1970s-style sunglasses, is the film’s one consistent pleasure. (OK, I rather liked Anne Archer as the mother of the bride, too, but she isn’t given much to do.) Douglas has the right attitude, i.e., that this should be a parody of swingin’ bachelorhood, not a celebration of it. The director, Mark Waters, made “Mean Girls,” so he must know what sharp, astute comedy looks like. (Curiously, he also made “Just Like Heaven,” which also dealt with ghost girlfriends.)

But the screenplay, by “Four Christmases” duo Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, which has been floating around Hollywood for the better part of a decade (it was almost produced in 2003 with Ben Affleck in the lead), never comes to grips with the fact that Connor IS A LOATHSOME HUMAN BEING. As my colleague Todd Gilchrist wrote in an insightful essay at Cinematical, Connor’s eventual decision to settle down comes not from a newfound appreciation for romantic love, but from a fear of dying alone. In other words, he’s still acting entirely on selfish impulses. He has not learned the error of his ways at all! Yet the movie wants us to cheer him for having a “change of heart.”

No, movie. I won’t cheer him. I feel bad for the woman he settles down with, since he will either cheat on her or be miserable in monogamy. I feel bad for her for being delusional enough to think she can change him. But I don’t feel bad for all the women who sleep with him, knowing what he’s like, and then get upset when he doesn’t call them the next day. They should have known better. And you, as moviegoers, should know better than to waste your time with this.

D (1 hr., 40 min.; PG-13, some profanity, a fair amount of vulgarity, lots of sexual innuendo.)