Scrooging around

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Baby, let’s just phone this in, aight?

Baby, let’s just phone this in, aight?

Rated 3.0

Somewhere in the protracted closing credits for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, someone might have at least given a nod to Charles Dickens. After all, the movie’s plot, like its title, is a riff on A Christmas Carol, so while they were mentioning all the chauffeurs and caterers and stand-ins, and doling out special thanks to the mansion where the movie was shot, they might have tossed something to the man whose spirit hovers closer over the proceedings than any of the ghosts on-screen.

Then again, Dickens is dead, and he doesn’t have a union.

The Ebenezer Scrooge of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s script is Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey), a celebrity fashion photographer famous for shooting models in bras and panties—and for getting them out of them. Connor is a miser not with money, but with his heart; he kicks women out of his bed as fast as he talks them out of their clothes. He dumps three women at one time in a conference call while a fourth waits writhing on his office futon.

Then he’s off to the estate of his late Uncle Wayne for the wedding of his brother Paul (Breckin Meyer) to Sandra (Lacey Chabert), where the only bridesmaid Connor hasn’t slept with is the one he hasn’t met yet. Chief among his former conquests is maid of honor Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner), who worries that his presence will be a bad influence.

She’s right. Connor immediately tries to talk Paul into ditching “this marriage thing,” and that night at the rehearsal dinner, brimming with Scotch and ill will, he launches into what we can only read as a “bah, humbug” speech about marriage being a trap for unwary men and love a delusion for weak and uneducated minds.

Having spoiled the party, he staggers off to the bathroom, where he gets his first shock of the evening: Standing at one of the urinals is none other than his dead Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas). In life, Wayne was Connor’s role model, a wealthy libertine who stocked his palace with wall-to-wall orgies—Hugh Hefner without the magazine. “Don’t waste your life like I did,” the dapper spirit says. “You’re gonna be visited by three ghosts … ”

That’s right: the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The first of these is, naturally, his first sexual partner (Emma Stone), who escorts him back to childhood, junior high, high school and college, including a wry scene in a sort of infinite singles bar lined with his conquests (“We dated for four days … ”; “ … four hours … ”; “ … 48 seconds … ”; “ … in your car … ”; “ … on you car … ”; “ … while I washed your car … ”).

But there’s only one “girlfriend past” who really matters. Every fisherman has the one that got away, and every serial seducer (at least in the movies) has the one he shouldn’t have tossed aside. For Connor, it’s Jenny Perotti. In Connor’s past, we see Jenny go from childhood pal to junior-high crush. Then he falls into the orbit of Uncle Wayne, who teaches him that the only way to have power over women is not to care. Connor learns his lesson well, seducing and abandoning girl after girl, then woman after woman, until finally, years later, he manages to seduce and abandon Jenny herself.

We know A Christmas Carol (and romantic-comedy movies), so we know full well that Connor/Scrooge will learn his lesson in the end. Writers Lucas and Moore touch the usual comedy cliché bases (a towering wedding cake fairly screams “Destroy me!”), but they also supply some pretty sharp writing: Uncle Wayne’s lectures on sexual games have the cynical ring of truth; Paul’s speech about why he loves Connor “in spite of everything” makes a deft fulcrum for Connor’s transition from prodigal to prince; and Connor’s morning-after-the-miracle plea to the distraught Sandra to go through with the wedding is a tidy summing up that Matthew McConaughey pulls off nicely.

Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven) directs with his usual slick proficiency. Jennifer Garner’s earnest conviction makes a neat counterpoint to McConaughey’s unsettling combination of charm and smarm. And Lacey Chabert spices the comedy with a spot-on parody of the high-strung, hyperventilating bride.

All in all, it’s a pleasantly familiar way to spend two hours. And it’s nice to think that, despite the lack of credit, Dickens might not mind all that much.