Matthew McConaughey is one of those actors I can’t help but like. He’s a man who — in the real world — seems like a perfectly affable party fiend who would be fun to hang around with. Someone who doesn’t really give a damn, who makes movies to fund his lifestyle, and only gets to make movies because he’s just popular enough to justify a continued career. He’s famous for pot-smoking, naked bongo playing, and anecdotes about goat sex. His website is so completely “him” it’s as if he has been reduced to a computer echo of himself, a la Jeff Bridges in Tron, and then blasted onto our screens as a series of chill statements and photos of him on mountains, complete with lazy faux-dub rhythms in the background. The most lovable things on the site are the randomised “McConaughey Facts” that pop up at the bottom of the screen. Sample McConaughey Fact: “In my most recent trip to Papua New Guinea I was inducted into the Kuppa Tribe of the Malagan Clan.” That’s just so McConaughey.
As I’ve said many a time, anyone who can laugh at himself is all right in my book. When presented with footage of Matt Damon doing an impression of him on Letterman…
…he seemed to take it with good humour. (It’s about two minutes from the end of the clip.)
My favourite thing about that clip is that at the end of the interview, as the presenter is trying to wrap things up, he goes off on a tangent about spending his Christmas with a family he once visited as an exchange student. It’s right out of nowhere, but that burning need to communicate some random fact about himself for no reason other than that he seems to be looking forward to the excursion is something I — a notorious blabbermouth — can really relate to.
Even though I find McConaughey the Man endlessly entertaining, McConaughey the Actor is another matter. Watching one of his movies is a bit of a crapshoot. Will we get one of his committed performances, such as his delicate turn in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, or as the demented Van Zan in Reign of Fire (which he was easily the best thing about)? Or will it be a frustratingly light but not particularly funny effort, as in Ron Howard’s instantly forgettable EdTV? For every Frailty or Lone Star there is a Wedding Planner, a Fool’s Gold, and probably a Failure To Launch to boot. Appearing in disposable romcoms might work to keep him in sex wax and bandannas, but it makes following his career difficult. Any hope that he might become Brad Pitt to Richard Linklater’s David Fincher fell apart when The Newton Boys came and went without making a ripple in the popular consciousness. He’s doing better than former girlfriend and fellow romcom stalwart Sandra Bullock right now, but it’s becoming touch and go.
He doesn’t even have an action career to fall back on. U-571 is only memorable for the shameful lies about the Enigma decoding effort, and Sahara — a film I quite like — is notorious for being one of the rare projects whose financial workings have been put on display for all the world to laugh at. Though not me. Seriously, I liked it. It was refreshingly irony-free, just a big crazy adventure about guys who get into scrapes for fun and do the right thing with no soul-searching. It was not of its time, sadly. It’s another film used as a short-hand for excessive Hollywood trash by people who haven’t seen it. Yes, it was obscenely expensive, and there’s no argument for that, but it’s got some charm. With about 20-25 minutes lopped out, it would’ve been treated with a lot more affection.
Unfortunately Ghosts of Girlfriends Past sees too much of the coasting McConaughey, with only hints of his real film-star energy. In a very loose adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore aim for easy emotional targets and don’t bother to complicate the story too much. McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a photographer with Austin Powers’ hunger for consequence-free sexual encounter but none of the dental problems. Forced by a flicker of conscience to attend his brother’s wedding, Mead quickly upsets and alienates the wedding guests with his cynical anti-marriage attitude, until he is visited by the ghost of his lothario uncle Wayne, played as a Robert Evans/Hugh Hefner hybrid by Michael Douglas. Wayne warns his Scrooge-like nephew that he will be visited by three “ghosts” (though at least one of them is still alive; the movie ties itself in knots trying to be light while addressing themes of death and loneliness). These apparitions — who enjoyably treat the “visions” like interactive videos — show Mead the miserable consequences of his actions, and reveal the reason he’s so emotionally disconnected: as a teenager, he was snubbed by his true love, Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner). It broke his heart and sent him to find solace in the dubious wisdom of Uncle Wayne.
Mead’s dark night of the soul forces him to accept the idea of true love just in time to help his brother (Breckin Meyer) marry his long-term sweetheart (an unbearably whiny Lacey Chabert), and to rescue Jenny from a relationship with potential suitor Brad (Daniel Sunjata). This last task is the most problematic one in a movie that otherwise has too many easy answers. Though we’re meant to side with Mead as he throws off his selfish persona, he’s also trying to ruin a potential relationship between Jenny and a scarily handsome volunteer with Doctors Without Borders who seems to be a really sweet guy. Mead, on the other hand, is intolerably arrogant and thoughtless, though he maintains the same level of oily charm throughout. McConaughey isn’t given enough room to adequately show his conversion to the cause of love, so that while Dickens did a thorough job of showing how Scrooge could change from curmudgeon to saint, Mead’s post-revelation persona seems much like his previous personality, except more manic.
This isn’t the only problem. Lucas and Moore’s script holds few surprises and fewer laughs than even their inexplicably popular breakout hit The Hangover. Director Mark Waters, whose work on The Spiderwick Chronicles was so impressive, manages to bring some life to this formulaic project, with the added bonus that he lights the movie with something other than a very very bright light — a concept that seemed to elude the directors of other 2009 romcoms, especially the biggest romantic comedy hits of the year, Robert Luketic’s The Ugly Truth and Anne Fletcher’s The Proposal. Waters also gets entertaining performances from Michael Douglas and Emma Stone as the “ghost” who deflowered Mead in college. Garner is given less to do, but she sells her big emotional moments, including a moving bedroom scene midway through. It’s also McConaughey’s best scene, with Mead forced to watch his past self mistreat the woman he loves simply because he’s scared of his feelings. In moments like that, the conceit of making the romcom Christmas Carol seems more inspired than it actually is.
My affection for Garner is even greater than my support for McConaughey. Ever since her career-making turn in Alias, I’ve been a huge fan, obnoxiously maintaining that she would get an Oscar nomination (at least!) by the end of the decade. Unless the Academy is going to surprise me and give her a nod for her extremely entertaining turn in The Invention of Lying, I think I’m going to come up short on that one. Her decision to cut down on film roles while raising her children is an understandable one, but I wish she made more movies. There hasn’t been a single film featuring Garner that wasn’t massively improved by her presence — even something as weak as Daredevil occasionally flies thanks to her. In fact, the only thing that didn’t suck about Electra was her performance as the titular assassin; she brought far more pathos and commitment to the project than it deserved.
Compare Ghosts of Girlfriends Past to The Invention of Lying, which was even more fascinated with the interplay of honesty and self-deception. After a brilliant riff on belief and religion, it spends a long, entertaining time banging its head against the disparity between the concepts of love and biological necessity, playing games with the conventions of the genre while at the same time pointing an accusing finger at the audience for expecting such cliches. (500) Days of Summer plays a similar trick; a love-struck Joseph Gordon-Levitt is beguiled by a romantic vision of life soundtracked by The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian and then left crushed by the realisation that he’s been deluding himself as much as he has been lied to by Zooey Deschanel’s idealised Summer. Compared to those two movies, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has no big ideas to share, other than that love is all you need.
Maybe it’s unfair to give Ghosts of Girlfriends Past a black mark for not matching up to the ambition of Gervais and Robinson’s high-concept fantasy or Mark Webb’s deconstruction, but now that filmmakers seem eager to break the genre down in order to build it back up, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past might end up being the last even vaguely entertaining traditional romcom made. Surely we can at least give it gold stars for being a more involving, charming, and imaginative movie than those flat and cynical laugh-free disasters The Proposal and The Ugly Truth. Where they trade in cheeky, strained jokes about sex and modern gender politics, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has more luck focusing on the people in the relationship than the gimmicks that get in their way, and then trounces those films completely by casting two charming actors who seem to have some sparks together. Though McConaughey’s performance is disappointing and lacks modulation, the relentless charm that stops him from hitting a deeper note still has its uses. More so than many male leads in recent romcoms, at least he can flash a winning smile and drawl some flirty come-on with naughty aplomb, and when he’s matched with Garner’s wholesome persona, it’s hard to dismiss the rote shenanigans completely. Sometimes, making a reasonably successful movie really is that simple.