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Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) -vs- Star Trek (2009)

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

A warning: I’m stepping way outside my wheelhouse for this smack. Plenty of Smackdown critics live for the Boys With Toys genres. They endlessly and seriously dissect Wolverine and X-Men and Batman and Hulk and all the rest. Show me an explosion in a movie trailer? I’m a no-show. Graphic novel/comic hero pedigree? Pure Kryptonite. So… Let’s say it’s date night and you’re the girl. Common wisdom might suggest you’d be happier arm-twisting your significant (or insignificant) other into the theater for a dose of movie star magic featuring McConnaughey and Garner. Your distaff half’s pining in an entirely different testosterone-fueled direction. Should you give in and check out the Trek or put your high-heeled foot down and insist on the rom-com? Let’s do this. Captain James Tiberius Kirk vs. Connor Meade. Two alpha/hound dogs who have their way with women.

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In This Corner

It’s never a good sign when a film takes place at Christmas time, based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, gets released in May. Trust me. In “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” Michael Douglas gets to play his age, a dead guy returned to his Hefner-esque Rhode Island manse to wheedle and cajole his young ward, every bit as sleazy as his mentor and possessed of an anachronistically inexplicable Texas twang. Is McConnaughey really that big a star that (like Costner in “Robin Hood”) he doesn’t even have to try to sound geographically related to the rest of the characters in the film? While I recognize that not all actors are Meryl Streep, the ego involved in that decision offends…but wait. Perhaps there’s something more sinister at work, something deeper and darker; think back a few months, years, decades. Another New England dynasty raised one son with a similarly unexplained Texas twang. The scion and the others proper sons of Maine. Wait. Gimme a minute. Can’t place the name…but the face is familiar. Oh yeah, and he broke the world. Maybe that’s why the sore-thumb accent grates so.

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In That Corner

Imagine a world with only three television networks. Odds are, if you were born into such a world, Star Trek, whether you liked it or not, burrowed its way into your subconscious. Trekkers, Trekkies, sci-fi fans, larpers, geeks of every stripe, I do not count myself as one of your ever-increasing number.  But opening day, I was at the first show of J.J. Abrams’ reimagined reboot prequel “Star Trek”. It’s a sure-footed and refreshing piece of work, and it just plain works.

I only vaguely remember Tribbles and cheesy effects, a sort of mid-sixties I’d-Like-To-Buy-The-World-A-Coke, It’s-A-Small-World-After-All vibe to the proceedings made laughable by intentionally hammy overacting, distant planets that resembled tackily redressed soundstages and familiar Western locales. A simple Utopian message of unification triumphed weekly against a larger evil. That Star Trek.

The Romulans with all their pointy darkness and big frontal lobes build sinister black and pointy structures, resembling nothing so much as crushed spiders and used false eyelashes, stray shellacked hairs stuck in a very slow drain.

Federation Starships gleam white and round, all discs and cylinders with no pointy edges. The future as imagined by Gene Roddenberry in 1966 looked like a dentist’s convention held in a Ramada Inn, sleek office furniture, screens, knobs, and gravity for all. Men wore uniforms that looked like nothing so much as dental smocks and pajamas while women sported ridiculously short outfits with groovy boots suitable for teeth cleaning, ice skating and go-go dancing. The feature’s costumes, while remaining essentially faithful in spirit, up the coolness quotient a bit, incorporating added textures, a bit more variety and flash.

The bad news about the imagined future, ladies? Teleportation? A breeze. Warp speed travel? No sweat. Vulcan mind meld? Done. Childbirth? Same. No change. Screaming women still lie on metal tables wearing ugly hospital gowns while their husbands ask about gender. Really? The good news? Antique cars last a really long time, and Iowa will have cliffs.

The Scorecard

How many words are there for skanks and douchebags? I’ll need all of them to do justice to “Ghosts.” There is tremendous fun to be had with this film if viewed at home Mystery Science Theatre-style with a group of friends. Proceed with caution, and don’t say you weren’t forewarned.

Whatever charm the star once exuded has been misspent and cheapened, made creepy. Boyish charm has a shelf life; it expires exponentially faster when misspent on unworthy witless projects. Gleaming white teeth, a permanent man tan, and a predilection for shirtlessness leave the audience hungry for substance as the perennial scumbucket enters middle age, dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood and responsibility. The rutting manwhore revisits (literally) hundreds of meaningless flings and one-night stands in a night designed for epiphanies, but the women are no more than empty husks so the exercise rings false. Only Jennifer Garner, childhood friend and unexplained neighbor, his first love is delegated the saintly doctor role, the only worthy recipient of devotion and anything approximating affection or even decency. For all her goodness, she is mostly consigned to standing in the margins, smiling understandingly or simmering indignantly. This passes for dignity and character, and the couple’s coupling provides what posters promise as a happy (if unearned) ending. Along our bumpy and offensive way, we are pounded with the requisite rom-com unfunny car chases, desperate pratfalls and far-fetched farcical misunderstandings, all delivered with flatfooted dialogue, on-the-nose exposition, crudely rendered supporting characters that feel unearthed from a twenty-year old script from some hack screenwriter’s drawer. I won’t name names. There might be some statute of limitations. Suffice it to say that I wanted my two hours back, my eight dollars back, and I’m not going to get them. I wanted to wash my brain out with soap, to poke out my eyes with sharp sticks. I really hated this movie. Can you tell?

Spock and his interterrestrial minions paved the touchy-feely way for this new millennium’s zeitgeist—all the new agey cultural acceptance and racial unity started in the mid-sixties with the Star Fleet’s first bold ventures into outer and inner space. Perhaps Barack Obama is our first half-human, half-Vulcan president. Spock was a definitive role model, unruffled under pressure, the smartest man in any room. Kirk was more of a hothead, an equal opportunity ladies man, chasing and catching the females of any planet, any skin color, all women were his game, so long as the skirt was short and the boobs saluted the sky.

Television’s Sulu, Uhura, McCoy, Chekov, Scotty, Spock, and Kirk were iconic characters of small-screen myth and purveyors of almost unimaginably stiff scenery chewing, the Enterprise a comfortingly multi-ethnic Traveling Mayberry of the heavens. Their young counterparts are cleverly cast, not wedded to the cheesy badness, instead   saluting the sweet spirit and good intentions of the series, honoring the mythmaking and power. The screenplay affords each of them enough genesis story and a clever introduction accomplished with easy wit and a sly offhandedness. I don’t know any Trekkers personally, but I suspect they’ll like this respectful, breezy, hip and technically impeccable take on their holy relic. The characters’ interrelationships kept me more than awake and amused, and the appearance of Leonard Nimoy touched even this Trek-resistant heart, his Vulcan salute and gravelly voice bringing tears to my eyes and rekindling my corny hopes for a bright intergalactic future.

Given the indistinguishable (and undistinguished – GI Joe, Transformers, and Terminator) dystopian fantasies celebrated in three of the six trailers preceding the film, I’m truly grateful for the series’ over-arching themes of peace and reconciliation. I haven’t seen any puzzle piece of the enormous Star Trek franchise since “The Wrath of Khan” when Ricardo Montalban’s feathered blonde tresses and the original cast members’ stubborn resistance to learning screen acting technique sent me scurrying for a quarter century of cultural cover in the wilderness.

The film cast is fine, chosen with great care and hipness quotient turned up high. Chris Pine is terrific, just perfect as the young Turk Kirk, a sort of fireplug version of Brad Pitt, better here (with his real hair) than in last year’s indie “Bottle Shock.” Zac Quinto holds worlds of repressed emotion and passion behind those giant peepers and elfin ears. Not to mention that bad haircut. Apparently, in spite of their extremely advanced culture and intellect, the Vulcan planet favored the Moe Howard look. Eric Bana makes a convincing bad guy Romulan, but I wish someone would explain why all the bad guys wear leather and cool tattoos while the good guys still dress like dentists. (Evil space races build dark and gloomy starships equipped with no safety railings on the ubiquitous precipitous platforms tailor-made for dramatic plummets and predictable death.) Winona Ryder plays Spock’s mother in  little more than a cameo; her enormous eyes still penetrate, but the mother in me wanted to share my popcorn with her. Eat something, I thought, trying to meld with her mind and failing. The always-wonderful Karl Urban has a blast with Dr. McCoy; I confess I’ve been a little bit in love with Urban since 2000’s little-seen New Zealand delight “The Price of Milk,” and Bones is his juiciest role in a long time.

So what propelled me to the theater? The trailer looked promising; I’m ever hopeful that a prequel will work. It seems a good bet when the original isn’t too great that the prequel might top it. Beginnings interest me; the intrinsic possibilities of inside jokes and insights intrigue. J.J. Abrams’ character-driven series, “Felicity” hinted that he might tip the scales in favor of relationship over explosions. The effects are flawless, the editing lively and seamless, some of the sci a little too fi, but unlike other jacked-up Boys With Toys movies, I usually knew who was fighting and why. I ask for little else.

The Decision

McConnaughey’s charm runs thin. Sex addicted Michael Douglas channels creeper Robert Evans. Jennifer Garner is adorable; I’m convinced she’s the reason the critics didn’t drub this odious mess into the proverbial ground. She’s lovable. We get it. She plays smart and nice, the only woman in the film who’s neither neurotic harpy nor skanky ho. Run. Run from the movie star vehicle into the “Star Trek” movie. Trust me. Even if sci-fi isn’t your wheelhouse, you’ll thank me for steering you.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

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