Monday, May 15, 2017
Summer Not-Busters: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)
Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner
Domestic Box Office: $55,250,026
It's hard to remember now, when romantic comedies are rarely made at all, let alone become hits, but the genre used to be a staple of the summer movie season. If you were inclined to see certain kinds of movies as gendered in their appeal, you might argue that the studios used to put out big splashy action movies to appeal to guys, and big splashy romantic comedies to appeal to women. Romantic comedies don't really factor into the summer slate anymore, partially because, as at least one thinkpiece per year declares, the romantic comedy is a dead genre. If you're wondering what killed it, it's movies like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a film that, despite being part of a genre marketed towards women, isn't actually made for women - unless it was made for women who hate themselves. This movie is gross. Don't ever watch it.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past begins at a disadvantage because it builds itself around one of the most tired tropes in fiction: a takeoff on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The twist here is that the Scrooge character is an asshole who treats women as disposable goods whose only purpose on earth is for his pleasure. The guy is Connor (a pre-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey), a famous photographer and the kind of guy who claims that he "loves women" even as he treats them like they're beneath his contempt. The film doesn't waste any time in establishing this aspect of Conner's personality, opening with him swooping into work, directing that the celebrity he's photographing be stripped of her clothes (is she okay with this? It seems to take her aback, but she's soon too distracted by the revelation that Connor intends to have an archer shoot an apple off her head to be concerned about her state of undress), then hooking up with her in his office, interrupting things only to take a Skype conference call with three women that he's been seeing, explaining to them that since he doesn't have much in the way of free time he figured he'd handle the break ups "in bulk." Women aren't human beings to Connor; they are just vessels for the satisfaction of his desires, have no value beyond that, and can be as easily discarded as a takeout container.
How did Connor end up this way? Well, it all goes back to his uncle and idol Wayne (Michael Douglas), who raised him and his brother, Paul (Breckin Meyer), after their parents' deaths and who raises Connor with such nuggets of wisdom as: relationships are about power, and the person who cares the most has the least amount of power; unattractive women might as well kill themselves, but unattractive men have a chance as long as they believe enough in their dicks; control the power dynamic so that a woman won't think she can get away with ending the night "without getting naked;" and don't ask a woman out directly because, if you do, you "might as well say 'I'm a fag, let's be friends.'" What the film lacks in charm it more than makes up for in homophobia, which also includes Connor being told at one point that his outfit looks "gay," and him learning that a someone he once slept with has since transitioned, and though the film stresses the idea that Wayne regrets the way he lived his life because he ended up alone, given that it also shows him as a ghost hitting on women left and right in the afterlife, the regret seems to stem solely from the fact of having no woman to mourn him rather than from how he treated women while he was alive.
Connor's life is marginally disrupted when he's reminded of the fact that Paul and his girlfriend Sandra (Lacey Chabert) are about to get married and he rushes back home just in time for the rehearsal dinner, where he comes face-to-face with Jenny (Jennifer Garner), his childhood friend and former girlfriend. In just a matter of hours Connor manages to bring the wedding to the brink of being called off by getting drunk, professing his disbelief in the institution of marriage, grabbing the breast of the mother of the bride (this movie being what it is, she doesn't mind and in fact seems to find it charming), destroying the wedding cake, and revealing that the groom once slept with one of the bridesmaids. He also finds himself visited by some apparitions who are determined to make him do a bit of self-reflecting: first Wayne shows up to let him know that he's going to be visited by the ghosts of girlfriends past, present, and future, then matters are passed off to Allison (Emma Stone in a performance that is the film's sole highlight), the girl to whom Connor lost his virginity and who then takes him on a tour of his romantic escapades leading up to the present.
The bulk of the "girlfriends past" episode is taken up by Connor's relationship with Jenny, with whom he was friends during childhood, lost touch after high school, and reconnected with as adults, at which point they started dating and then as soon as she slept with him, he ghosted her. Despite this, and despite the fact that Connor has happily carried on doing his thing during all the years since, when the ghost of girlfriends future shows up and reveals that Jenny will marry someone else, Connor proclaims that she was always supposed to end up with him. I mean... what? Has he even thought about Jenny since walking out on their relationship? It sure doesn't seem like he did. How did he ever think that ending up with her was going to happen? Also, why? Jenny's a successful doctor and a seemingly nice person who cares about others. Why should she have to end up with a guy who has no discernible redeeming qualities?
Because this is not just a movie, but a work of PUA wish-fulfillment, Jenny does not tell Connor to go fuck himself and instead gets back together with him. And this is a happy ending because even though he's a jerk, him being a jerk is actually her fault. It's her fault because while Wayne may have taught him some bad lessons, her choosing to dance with someone else at a middle school dance was the catalyst for Connor seeking out those lessons in the first place. Yes, that's right, Connor became a sleezy predator because when he was 13 a girl that he didn't even ask to dance in the first place decided to dance with someone else instead and he decided that he would never open himself up to that kind of hurt again. So not only does he get what he wants, he doesn't even have to take ownership of the gross behavior that almost cost him everything in the first place. I can't imagine how a film whose basic message is that even a man who does everything in his power to earn a woman's disdain still deserves to have that woman's love could fail to hit with its intended audience, but such was the fate of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. And if this film is the point to which the romantic comedy has evolved, then the genre deserves to be dead.
Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: No, it should have been burned with fire