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By Rick Kisonak | May 5, 2009

Matthew McConaughey has been in the public eye for sixteen years now. Looking back on it, his has been one of the oddest showbiz careers in recent memory. And I’m not even counting that whole naked bongo playing business.

Consider the quality of films he made in his early days. It comes as almost a shock to recall that he once appeared in pictures as acclaimed as “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “Lone Star” (1996), “Amistad” (1997), “The Newton Boys” (1998), and “U-571” (2000). Because, as soon as the century changed, the type of work he did changed too.

Suddenly, he was Hollywood’s go-to guy for chick flicks, romantic comedies like “The Wedding Planner” (2001), “How to Lose A Guy In 10 Days” (2003), “Failure to Launch” (2006) and last year’s foolish “Fool’s Gold.” In a decade he’d sunk from collaborating with Steven Spielberg to costarring with Kate Hudson.

Now, like clockwork, the actor has delivered his latest estrogen-fest, about which there is news – both good and bad. The bad news is a more predictable, by-the-numbers plot that would be difficult to concoct. The good news is the movie has nearly as many laughs as clichés.

“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” as you’ve no doubt surmised, borrows its central gimmick from Dickens. There’s a fairly established tradition in Hollywood of dressing up comedies and teen films with elements lifted from Shakespeare (for example, “10 Things I Hate About You”), but this is the first rom-com I’ve come across to boast the author of A Christmas Carol in its DNA. Maybe Zac Efron’s next offering will update something from Dostoevsky.

McConaughey stars as Connor Mead, a celebrity photographer who’s attained a level of celebrity himself. A lifelong commitment-phobe, he is as famous for his playboy lifestyle as he is for his camera work, though the film’s screenwriters (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) never manage to explain why seemingly sane women keep lining up to get dumped by him.

In an early scene, he breaks up with three at once via an online conference call to clear his schedule for a lusting pop singer who watches him commit this unfeeling act and yet seems to feel no less lust for him afterward. Next to the women in this movie, contestants on The Bachelor are paragons of self esteem.

The story revolves around a long weekend during which the wedding of Mead’s younger brother, Paul (Breckin Meyer), is scheduled to take place. The head bridesmaid, Jenny (Jennifer Garner), just happens to be Mead’s first love, the One He Shouldn’t Have Let Get Away. He plans to convince his brother to save himself and call the whole thing off, but the ghost of their philandering Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) appears with plans of his own.

The idea is three spirits will visit Mead in the course of the night to teach him the error of his wicked ways – the ghosts of girlfriends past, present, and future. Uncle Wayne’s hope is that by morning his nephew will realize he’s on a path which leads to loneliness and regret, a lesson he learned the hard-partying way.

I can’t imagine anyone who sees this would fail to guess its outcome before the opening credit sequence has concluded. Plot twists or unexpected developments of any sort are not what make the film a moderately satisfying diversion. The script has occasional moments of cheekiness, even a couple of laugh-out-loud lines. Director Mark (Mean Girls) Waters proves adept at switching gears from slapstick to tender romance, and the chemistry between McConaughey and Garner is sufficient to convince the viewer to care about their characters for 115 minutes even if they are barely one dimensional.

Other films – 1988’s “Scrooged,” for example – certainly appropriated the same source material to far more inventive effect, but “Ghosts” doesn’t seem to judge itself against those movies. McConaughey’s previous romantic comedies make for fairer comparison I think and, in that context, “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” is likely to exceed expectations. Frankly, I dreaded the prospect of sitting through it but was pleasantly surprised to discover the degree to which the humor outweighed the humbug.

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