The Good Girl

September, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Miguel Arteta

Starring:Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, and Zooey Deschanel

The Good Girl

Jennifer Aniston, one of the most likeable and popular stars of the hit T. V. series "Friends" joins other members of her ensemble cast in trying to break out of her small-tube persona in this small, but tellingly observed drama set in a small town Texas town. She plays Justine, an army brat married to Phil, a slovenly house painter effortlessly embodied by John C. Reilly.  Justine spends her days drowning in the boredom of a meaningless job at a local discount store. She and Phil are trying to conceive, but parenthood doesn't promise to bring better communication or happiness to either of them. So it's no surprise that despite considerable misgivings, she's drawn to Holden, a withdrawn young co-worker, nine years her junior, played by Jake Gyllenhall. She drifts into an affair with him fueled more by the claustrophobic nature of her marriage than by her sexual appetites; Holden embodies her frustration with the lives they've been dealt, and his dreams of escaping to become a writer feed her own fantasies of breaking out of her dead-end marriage and emerging into the woman she feels destined to become.

But it's a small town, and her husband's best friend and partner, played with a disturbing combination of humor and menace by Tim Blake Nelson, (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) manipulates Justine into a Devil's choice: sleep with him too or face Phil's wrath when he's told the truth about his wife's affair. With Holden's mounting pressure to run away with him, and the discovery that she's pregnant just as Phil learns he's the source of their infertility, Justine has to decide whether to remain in her sadly circumscribed but safe life, or risk everything by abandoning Phil and committing herself to an uncertain future with her hopelessly immature lover. Her decision, and it's implementation frame the closing elements of this excellently scripted and beautifully acted film--and yet there are a pair of flaws here that limit the impact of the whole….

Successful movie stars rarely make an effective conversion into skilled actors. At best, they just continue to embody the characteristics which made them audience favorites to begin with, and attempts to move away from that formulaic approach are almost never successful. Sylvester Stallone, he of the mighty pectorals, tried it in "Copland" opposite Robert  DeNiro, and the results were dreadful; here, Anniston is appealing without being at all convincing, in part because she's surrounded with some of the most gifted character actors in movies today, and partly because the script is so damn good that their vivid, thoroughly realized portrayals simply outshine hers. She's decent, but completely out classed. As her pot-smoking lout of a husband, Reilly has the kind of role he's been perfecting for years in films like "Boogie Nights'; nobody's better at playing the dim bulb, unless, of course, it's Tim Blake, who captured audiences as George Clooney's sad-sack partner in "O Brother". The two of them create an eerily believable pair here, with such dead-on characterizations that you secretly suspect they're married to each other. 

And the supporting cast is every bit as wonderful; from the manager of Justine's store to her co-workers; even Gyllenhall, who's preppy good looks and big sad eyes make him a poster child for Salinger-type roles, comes to life here as a self-absorbed twerp with just enough charm to make his role as seducer of the basically decent Justine entirely credible. Alas, in Justine herself, we always see Ms. Aniston, working hard at being the girl next door, but never quite getting it just right.

The writer and director team of Mike White and Miguel Arteta are at work for the second time here; their first, a decidedly quirky examination of obsessive male co-dependence entitled "Chuck and Buck" was well if uneasily received, and traces of that work can be found in the relationship in this film between the Reilly and Nelson characters. These two have a real knack for dialogue and working with actors who have their characters down pat, but with one telling creative failure that, in the end, robs this film of it's full potential impact. That weakness is one of artistic viewpoint.

White and Arteta don't like their characters; from leads to tellingly sketched minor roles, no one here is presented with any empathy. The movie's pervasive attitude towards its characters is one of pained distaste masquerading as satire. Here are people whose failures arise from their own stupid, narrow worldview; see how much fun it is to depict their empty and silly lives! From Justine's overly perky and predictably conventional co-worker to the store's manager and security personnel, no one comes across as possessing the slightest bit of self-awareness. But satire only works if the object of its scorn should know better-without that kind of justification, poking fun becomes an exercise in mere mockery. "Look at these dumb, treadmill-committed hicks" the creators keep saying, "let's laugh at their dead-end jobs and empty lives as they run into the same brick walls over and over again."

Contrast these portrayals, as good as they are, with the working class characters in Mira Nair's "Hysterical Blindness", a striking examination of the lives of two young women, Justine's age, currently playing on H.B.O. In that film, the director and screenwriter don't spare their exploration of the foibles, limitations and failures of the main characters, (flawlessly played by Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis) but they do so in ways that allow an essential dignity to emerge as well. In the end, the viewer of "The Good Girl" is left with the impression  White and Arteata don't like their creations for the simple reason that they feel superior to them, a fundamental flaw which seriously undercuts both the substance and impact of this otherwise interesting and well-crafted movie. 


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