You just gotta love the mentality of the Hollywood studios in the summer. For the big ticket presumptive blockbusters, they tend to assume that their desired adolescent male audience is entirely undiscriminating, and spit out one mediocre explosion-filled action adventures after another. And for counter-programming, they tend to have an equally low opinion of whatever niche audience they're shooting for that weekend.

Case in point: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a dreary romantic comedy that hit theaters the same weekend as the wandering and pointless X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It's the latest in that well-stocked subgenre of films arguing that no person who might prefer the pleasures of single life - which in the world of romcoms, is basically another way of saying, "has a lot of casual sex" - to stable romantic relationships that culminate in marriage can possibly be a fully functioning human being. And even more than most such pictures, it left me with the immediate desire to go out and fuck a complete stranger in a public restroom.

As is so often the case, the sexaholic cad in this go-round is played by Matthew McConaughey. His name (if "the Matthew McConaughey character" isn't enough for you to go on) is Connor Mead, and he is a hugely successful magazine photographer who tears himself away from his buffet of willing ladies in New York City one weekend to go play best man at his brother Paul's (Breckin Meyer) wedding at the sprawling estate where the grew up with their womanising uncle after their parents died. The maid of honor, as it happens, is an old childhood friend of the Meads, Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner), and she has a particular hatred of Connor's manslut ways.

Jenny's aprobation isn't enough to bother Connor; what is, is the appearance of his dead uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), informing him that over the course of the night before the ceremony, he will be visited by three spirits: the Ghost of Girlfriends Past, the Ghost of Girlfriends Present, and the Ghost of Girlfriends Yet to Come. To Connor's credit, and the writers' (Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, whose last assault on romantic decency was Four Christmases), this lift from Dickens's A Christmas Carol is meant to be hackneyed, and it even leads to one of the few completely effective gags in the movie: after his ordeal, Connor throws open the window and asks the boy shoveling out the guest's cars after a heavy snowfall if today is Christmas. The boy replies that he is a dumbass. Anyway, back to the actual plot, which is naturally that Connor will be reminded that Jenny was his first and only Twu Wuv, and if he doesn't act quickly to reform his evil ways, he shall surely lose her forever.

It says quite a lot about the film's commitment to its theme that the most convincing and amusing parts of the movie all involve Connor's idolisation of Wayne's tremendous gift for the sleazy pick-up. Partially, I suppose this is because we all prefer Bad Boy McConaughey to Woobie McConaughey; partially it's because Douglas and his unbelievable flashback hair are the only lively things in a hugely programmatic movie. The whole film lives and dies on that one major contrast, although I needn't have included the "lives and" part. McConaughey versus Douglas. Both play objectively seedy, scuzzy fellas (we're introduced to Connor, more or less, as he gets out of bed with one woman to break up with three others on a video conference call), but while McConaughey cranks his charm up to eleven and makes sure we never doubt the sensitive poet inside, Douglas just plain has fun as a corrupting sexual misanthrope. Which means, of course, that he's a hell of a lot more fun to watch.

Whatever the case, GoGP doesn't succeed all that well at getting the romantic and the comedy in the same place at the same time: whenever it explicitly talks up its message about growing up and becoming monogamous, the funny runs for the nearest door while we get to see Garner quiver her lips. Which is just about all she or any other woman in the film has a chance to do. It remains an insurmountable mystery to me why a genre that is theoretically being made entirely for the benefit of a female audience would traffic so extensively in undernourished female characters, but I've spent enough time complaining about that peculiarity that I shouldn't like to bring it up yet again.

Misogyny, overt or no (along with a couple dashes of tossed-off homophobia) isn't really the deal-breaking problem with GoGP, of course; the fact that it's wretchedly unamusing is. The first completely bad movie directed by Mark Waters (whose peak remains and probably always will remain Mean Girls), it proceeds with the "bum-bum-BADUMP" pacing of a lightweight sitcom, and it has the gags to match: see Connor fumble with the wedding cake! see Connor flirt with the mother of the bride (Anne Archer, giving the film a brief shot of vitality in an extended cameo)! see McConaughey with awful '90s hair! I ought to forgive the film these routine laffs, though, as the only ambition on display comes in a remarkably bad meta-joke about musical montages in romantic comedies.

Naturally, all of this is shot and lit with intense dispassion. It's not quite the cramped sitcom look of the very worst of the breed, but if you can spot even a single shot or cut that is interesting enough to warrant remembering once you're out of the theater, you're a more attentive viewer than I.

It would take a great deal of bile to work up any sort of hatred for such overt product, but lose Michael Douglas and there is pretty much nothing about the movie that's appealing in even the smallest degree. Sure, McConaughey and Garner both have the ability to be charismatic, sometimes, but Garner is sleepwalking through an essentially functional role, and it's hard not to think of all the times that McConaughey has done the exact same thing better (I immediately recall the unnecessarily decent How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days). Basically, GoGP is rote and useless; oddly enough, just like the film it was meant to fight at the box office. Those whose only requirement of cinema is that it lazily reinforces cultural norms will doubtlessly be charmed, but I really can't think of anyone else who could walk out even a little satisfied.

4/10