“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” feels like ghosts of movies past, with a been-there, seen-that feeling that goes far beyond its familiar appropriation of the structure of “A Christmas Carol.” It is not as deep as Matthew McConaughey’s dimples. He plays Connor Mead, a photographer so fabulously successful that he captures a magazine cover with one click of the shutter, while he mesmerizes every female in a mile radius into doing all but levitating out of their clothes every time he looks at them.
At his brother’s wedding, Connor is visited by the ghost of their guardian, world-class womanizer Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), who tells him he will be visited by three ghosts to help him learn about what he needs to change in his life. The first is Allison, played by”Superbad’s” very gifted Emma Stone, with a frizz of hair, a mouthful of braces, and some serious 80’s fashion victim attire. She takes him from his childhood love Jenny to the early lessons from Uncle Wayne in (1) picking up as many women as possible and (2) feeling as little for them as possible.” He relives his conquests and liaisons and his romance with Jenny (Jennifer Garner). Meanwhile, he manages to wreck havoc on the wedding plans.
The primary problem here is that the movie wants to have Connor both ways, a heartless but irresistible lady-killer who is callously offensive, breaking up with three girls at once via conference call and telling everyone at the wedding that marriage is a disaster. He’s less an emotional Ebenezer Scrooge than he is a throwback to those cads-just-waiting-to-be-tamed ring-a-ding-ding movies Frank Sinatra used to make like The Tender Trap and “Come Blow Your Horn.”
But we’ve come a long way, baby, since then, and the idea of the love ’em and leave ’em Lothario is neither as charming or as believable as it once was. Even McConaughey’s dimples can’t keep Connor from seeming more creepy than magnetic. The endless rows of women who are ready, willing, and able to do anything but act with any semblance of intelligence or dignity come across as embarrassing and sadly in need of some “he’s just not that into you” lessons. We cannot connect to the movie because it is impossible to feel any sympathy for Connor or root for his happiness. Fred Ward is nicely flinty as the prospective father-in-law but poor Lacey Chabert can’t help sounding shrill as the kind of bride who freaks out about every detail. Even the divine Anne Archer can’t do much with a cougar-role that gives her little do do but murmur knowingly. The highlights of the film are Stone’s teenage ghost and especially Garner. Her grace, elegance, and authenticity make us wish for her to do a lot better than the guy with the ghosts. And a lot better than this lackluster and formulaic script.
I have no affection for this movie but I have to admit to a grudging admiration for its willingness to be awkward, intrusive, and disturbing. A stark contrast to the similarly-themed and similarly plotted Paul Blart Mall Cop of just three months ago, this could easily have been a raunchier take on the same easy targets — mall shops, mall music, mall food, and mall shoppers as a proxy for an America that is soft in the middle and narcotized by things that can be bought by credit cards.
But writer/director Jody Hall (of the cult favorite “The Foot Fist Way”) makes comic movies with so much edge they can give you a paper cut. He does not go for the easy laugh that makes you feel good about yourself, you know, the one that lulls audiences into thinking that their families are not dysfunctional, just quirky, and that their pain makes them authentic and charming. This movie is funny but it is upsetting and very dark.
The overall structure of the movie is very much like the mall cop movie of just three months ago, “Paul Blart.” Both are about would-be policemen who take our their frustration with petty enforcements when they are not mooning over a pretty mall employee.
But where “Paul Blart” was cute and gentle, “Observe and Report” is harsh and bleak. There are no cheery pop songs on the soundtrack to let us know they are just kidding. And there is not much in the way of lessons learned or getting in touch with the life force. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, a sad, lonely, and angry man who is borderline delusional. He lives with his alcoholic mother. He yearns for Brandi (a fearless Anna Faris), who works at a department store cosmetics counter. He bitterly resents Detective Henderson (Ray Liotta), who is assigned to investigate reports of a flasher who has been harassing women in the parking lot. In a subversion of the usual movie tropes, he decides to ride to the occasion and resolve the flasher case himself as a way of proving himself. But his instincts are skewed and he makes a series of poor judgments and expensive mistakes that are played for comedy.
Rogen, Faris, Celia Weston as Ronnie’s mother, and Michael Pena as his second in command manage the difficult material well, but Hall is more adept as writer (and selector of esoteric songs for the soundtrack) than as a director. The tone may be even more harsh than intended just due to an uncertain control of narrative and character. Hill says he was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy,” but he needs to do a bit more observing and reporting of his own to make sure he understands what makes those movies work.
“Jonah’s” production company, Big Idea, promises “Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun,” and in my opinion they have more than delivered on both, with a series of videos that are right up there with the best in entertainment and humor and unsurpassed in communicating with kids about honesty, compassion, sharing, and kindness. Some of the videos are based on Bible stories and some are original, but all star computer-animated vegetables and all have gentle morals that create opportunities for families to talk to kids about the issues that matter most. Though Christian in origin, the values in the videos are universal. The references to God are explicit but non-denominational. However, crucifix imagery does feature in the film.
In their first theatrical release, Bob the Tomato and his friend are driving three veggie children to a concert when they meet up with perennial veggie favorites, the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. The Pirates tell the story of Jonah, a messenger who enjoyed delivering messages from God until God asked him to deliver one to a place he didn’t want to go to. So, he ended up swallowed by a whale. Fortunately, God believes in second chances, so Jonah ends up just fine and a little wiser, too.
The movie may be a little long for the youngest fans of the videos, who are used to a brisk 30 minutes, but kids five and up will be delighted with the fast, funny, and touching story. Parents even may find that it goes by quickly, because it has some of the funniest jokes of any movie this year, including those intended for adults.
Parents should know that the moments of peril are handled with such a light touch that they are unlikely to scare children. Jonah may be tossed into the water, but he is wearing a very reassuring ducky lifesaver ring, and the credits explain that no vegetables were hurt in the making of the movie.
Families who see the movie should talk about when we must be obedient and when we think for ourselves. Some parents may be uncomfortable with the references to God and the Bible, but they should use the opportunity to talk about their own spiritual views – and ask children about theirs.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the Veggie Tales company’s latest creation, 3-2-1 Penguins, in Trouble on Planet Wait Your Turn and The Cheating Scales of Bullamanka. They may also want to try my favorite Veggie Tales video, The End of Silliness.
As we observe today’s International Day of Peace and A Million Minutes for Peace, an initiative to get 1 million people to pledge to pray for peace, I would like to recommend a film called Friendly Persuasion, set in the United States Civil War. It is the only movie I know where the characters not only pray for peace, they pray for guidance on how best to achieve it. Gary Cooper plays a farmer who struggles with his religious commitment to non-violence when his neighbors risk their lives for his family and property. All he asks is that “the will of God be revealed to us and we be given the strength to follow his will.” It is a beautiful depiction of a loving and respectful family who find strength in their faith during one of this country’s direst and most divisive moments. And it recognizes that prayer is important, but that it is the choices it inspires that make a difference.
Here is the peace pledge:
I will unite with people all over the world in observing the United Nations International Day of Peace. On September 21, I will pause at noon and, in my own way, pray for peace for one minute. May my one minute, magnified a million times, create a culture of peace that will change the future of humanity. My name will appear in the Peace Pledge Book to be presented at the United Nations on September 18.