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MOVIE REVIEW

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

His womanizing ways are spirited, if empty, in 'Ghosts'

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 1, 2009
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With "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," Matthew McConaughey completes his transformation into the George Hamilton of his generation. Fit, profoundly tan, rested from sybaritic pleasures we can only guess at (I do hope they still involve bongos), the star now exudes a lazy self-mockery that extends to whatever boondoggle of a movie he finds himself in. Each hoist of his eyebrows seems to say, "I've survived 'Fool's Gold,' darlin', and I'll survive this."

"Ghosts" is better-than-average McConaughey swill, but not by much - that's its pleasure and its curse. The movie's a "Christmas Carol" revamp with the star playing a cosmic stud Scrooge who hates marriage rather than the holidays and who views love as "magical comfort food for the weak and uneducated." Only a very rude critic might apply such a description to the movie itself.

McConaughey is Connor Mead, a celebrated Manhattan photographer who appears to do everything in triplicate: He shoots three magazine covers at once and breaks up with three girlfriends in a single video conference call. Having been tutored in the art of womanizing by his late Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas, doing an amusingly oily Rat Pack turn: Gordon Gekko by way of producer Robert Evans), Connor is a god of casual sex. Men want to be him, women want to do unprintable things with him, and McConaughey just looks like the cat who swallowed the birdcage.

But it's a chick flick, which means Connor needs to be punished, right? Arriving at the Newport, R.I., wedding of his earnest kid brother Paul (Breckin Meyer) and fiancee Sandy (Lacey Chabert), the hero encounters childhood sweetheart Jenny (Jennifer Garner), a tart-tongued doctor who hasn't forgiven him for one night of hit-and-run sex a decade earlier. (Newport, by the way, is played by various Bay State locations, not that you can tell.)

He also runs into the ghost of Uncle Wayne, who warns Connor that three spirits will show him the past, present, and future error of his ways. It's in this midsection that "Ghosts of Girl-friends Past" is at its most cheerily playful, with Emma Stone goosing the film's energy level as Spirit #1, a sardonic, braces-wearing teenager to whom Connor long ago lost his virginity.

The two revisit the scenes of the hero's youth - humiliations at middle school dances and so forth - via a flying four-poster bed, and then Connor's assistant Melanie (Noureen DeWulf) turns up as the ghost of girlfriends present, even though she's not a ghost or his girlfriend. (If you're looking for logic, you're at the wrong movie.) Very, very slowly, our man is made to understand he has been a pig, and McConaughey looks as though he's dragged unwillingly every step of the way.

But can you blame him when Connor gets to come on to the bride's cougariffic mother (Anne Archer) in a scene as effective as it is ludicrous? Oversubscribed with characters, "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" drops the lovely Archer like a hot tamale and mingles with others: Robert Forster as the bride's Marine dad; Rachel Boston, Camille Guaty, and Amanda Walsh as horny bridesmaids; Daniel Sunjata as a Mr. Perfect wedding guest who might sweep Jenny off her feet.

The dialogue is bright and shallow, the pacing brisk, and Rolfe Kent's score tells you exactly what to feel so you don't have to go to the bother yourself. There's a decent slapstick bit involving a tippy wedding cake and even a smidgen of meta-comedy here and there, rare moments when you realize director Mark Waters isn't asleep at the wheel.

Unfortunately, the plot demands that Connor must reform, and since no one here seems to buy such a notion, why should we? The last 15 minutes of "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" is a dreadful forced march through the conventions of romantic comedy tidying-up, with a "funny" car chase, everyone neatly paired off and the snarling rake of a hero revealed to be the softest of Mr. Softees.

McConaughey looks like he's having none of it. Actually, the star appears to have vacated the premises at around the 80-minute mark, well before Connor pledges eternal troth. He's there physically, of course, but the lewd light in his eyes has gone out. Mentally, he's on a beach in Mexico, hoisting an umbrella drink and saying, "Come on in, darlin', the water's fine."

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST

Directed by: Mark Waters

Written by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sexual content throughout, some language, and a drug reference, unholy tans)