Several weeks ago at a press conference for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Matthew McConaughey's latest cinematic, um, effort, I asked him and co-star Jennifer Garner if this film was more a cautionary tale for women not to be drawn in by douchebags than an object lesson for would-be lotharios. While McConaughey marveled at the prospect anyone would think one of his characters was a douchebag, Garner dismissed the idea that the greater lesson could or should be learned by the film's female viewership. "It's more for men to say you have to risk love and commitment," she insisted. "Otherwise, you're going to end up alone with old-age make-up and sad and the beautiful woman is going to go off and marry someone else."
While Garner's make-up reference was a clever play on the film's decidedly underwhelming "ghosts of girlfriends future" segment – and one which, if you're lucky enough to never see the film, will never be provided an actual context - the question unfortunately remains: who is this film supposed to teach a lesson, much less entertain? Having analyzed its reprehensible characters and deconstructed its mixed messages, it seems obvious that the film was either made specifically for terrible, stupid people of both genders, or for no one at all. Of course, the dirty little secret among men is that we do actually enjoy and occasionally seek out romantic comedies. Notwithstanding the ones starring McConaughey and/or Kate Hudson, there are a number of these films that we truly enjoy, albeit primarily because they indulge our own fantasies that extremely hot girls will find our oddball interests appealing or just think that we're hot, despite a fashion sense that would look more appropriate in a Florida retirement community than the streets of Los Angeles.
For those unfamiliar with Ghosts' premise, McConaughey plays Connor Mead, an unrepentant seducer of women who reconsiders his love-'em-and-leave-'em ways after he is visited by spirits representing the past, present and future of his relationships. As he descends upon a wedding to seduce the bridesmaids, undermine his little brother's impending nuptials and destroy whatever semblance of respect childhood sweetheart Jenny (Garner) once had for him, Connor soon begins to realize that a lifestyle that affords him sex with different model-hot women on a daily basis just isn't fulfilling without, you know, love.
First of all, the fact that I don't look like Matthew McConaughey makes it tough for me to imagine what it's like to be a guy who can get away with murder, at least in terms of his encounters with women. (Thankfully, I look like a prime suspect in terms of other felonies.) But even in that expansive canon of boyfriend-douchebags we love to hate, Connor is one of the most awful characters in the history of romantic comedies. Not only does he break up with three women simultaneously via video chat – with his next conquest waiting in the wings, no less – but he seems incapable of entering a room without trying to bed another woman while simultaneously reducing her to the sum total of her physical attributes and/or sexual prowess.
The most egregious example of this happens during a pre-wedding reception, during which he seduces a hot-to-trot young woman with quite possibly the most offensive come-on I've ever heard. Acknowledging that she's the only bridesmaid (of three) he hasn't slept with, he essentially says, "you've never had the enjoyment of having me f*ck you, so why don't you go upstairs to my room, take off your clothes, and I'll be up in five minutes to give you the greatest pleasure you've ever known."
Now, I am under no circumstances critical of a wedding hook-up, and certainly not against boning in general as a perfectly delightful way to pass the time. But how is that not egregiously offensive and disrespectful to this young woman, if not all women? Not to mention the bigger problem, which is that the film suggests that THIS WORKS. The girl cheerfully goes, "okay," runs upstairs, and prepares for a night of bliss. Although I suspect this scenario isn't far from the truth for McConaughey himself, the fact that Connor doesn't end up without her company, much less with a drink in his face, is a testament to the film's faith in the actor's charm, if not also proof that the filmmakers aren't thinking enough about what their film is saying.
All of which brings me to my point: if men are supposed to learn that Connor's life is empty, then looking at an encyclopedia of his female conquests is not going to teach them that lesson. First and foremost, Connor clearly doesn't respect women; anyone who would discard three women at the same time via videochat, much less say what he does to the women in this film on an ongoing basis, cannot possibly give any serious consideration to their feelings. But the fact that he doesn't care is precisely what makes him successful with women: as he acknowledges in the film, the person who cares less in a relationship has the most power, and caring doesn't even enter into his process when time comes to bed a beautiful woman.
Later in the film, there's of course the requisite about-face, when he realizes that his life is "empty" and he will be unhappy because he doesn't have love. But his fear seems to come from (A) dying and (B) being alone, in that order, which makes his transformation a hollow one at best. In the meantime, he's saying goodbye to a life of free and easy love with one hot woman after another whom he has sex and abandons, with no discernible repercussions except for an increased chance of contracting an STD. As a result, what thought should guys come away from this film with? Evidently, "you might not end up with your childhood sweetheart, but at least you'll be able to console yourself with the temporary affection of hundreds of incredibly beautiful women."
Meanwhile, what does it say that women (A) want a guy like this (in the movie, anyway), and (B) believe that men like this are actually unhappy? Mind you, I've never met Jack Nicholson so I don't know if he's secretly melancholy, but I know a couple of buddies who seem to fall ass-backward into, well, ass, and I've never known them to give in to bouts of true loneliness or despair, at least not like guys who are desperate to find girlfriends. Meanwhile, it's a constant source of consternation that women seem to think that these jerks are deep or substantive underneath those superficial surfaces, and just waiting for a good woman to plumb those emotional depths and reveal the sensitive soul that lurks underneath.
In terms of the women in the film, they're all defined either by overwhelming sexual desire, or none at all: although Jenny does have intercourse at one point during the film, she is otherwise completely virginal, while the rest of the bridesmaids are skanks whose entire purpose for living is apparently bedding anyone at the wedding, including the three dorks who are carrying Connor's balls. I want to be clear that I'm not offering a judgment of these women because they want to get laid, but because they are not discriminating whatsoever, and are aware that Connor is a reprehensible piece of sh*t and want to have sex with him anyway. Women have urges just like men do – and God love them for those urges! – but the fact that these young ladies will not only willingly hump anything with an adam's apple, but preferably one with a reputation for sleeping with women and fleeing before sunrise – says little about their character, much less characters.
Meanwhile, and with all due respect to Ms. Garner, it's patently delusional that all guys secretly want a long-term relationship, or further, that long-term relationships are inherently better or healthier than short-term ones and/or singlehood. This is the fallacy that completely destroyed the ending of He's Just Not That Into You, the first mainstream romantic comedy I can remember that even flirted with the idea of deeper truths between men and women. Except for its ending, all of that film and most of this one suggests that men are not nearly as complicated or interesting as women believe them to be, not in search of "one good woman," and ultimately, not worth all of those tears shed by women who can't understand why they are not more understanding, interested, or different than the way they have always seemed to be.
At one point in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, McConaughey is literally showered with tears from the women whose hearts he broke. It was a torrential downpour, but I felt less empathy for the women than I did Connor: after all, he was merely being who he is, and the fact that women falsely saw in him qualities he didn't possess isn't his fault. There are plenty of people (myself included) who have initiated a relationship with someone only to discover that the interest wasn't mutual, or fleeting at best, but it's kind of pathetic to cry about a guy who sleeps with you and then dumps you after one date, especially if you know (as the characters in the film seem to) that he goes through relationships sometimes literally 45 seconds at a time.
Ultimately, neither Connor nor the woman with whom he shares his bed is more "to blame," per se, but such mutual ignorance offers an important lesson to take away from Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, even if it's the only one that the film isn't trying to impart: for men, if you're happy sleeping with lots of women, don't convince yourself (or allow yourself to be convinced) that you're unhappy doing so; and for women, if you meet one of these guys, don't be fooled into believing he's going to change his ways, especially if he has a reputation, and more importantly, tells you he's like that. Sadly, I'm not sure that understanding either of these will result in fewer films like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, but with any luck it will result in more boning, which will at least keep quite so many people from seeing them.