The Good Girl
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, Zooey Deschanel

Miguel Arteta

Writing credits: Mike White
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Rated: R for some language and drug content
  (US 2002)

My mother used to live in a town called Gray, Maine; a town that always seemed to me just as gray as its name. Oh, sure, Cole Farms dishes up a mountain of the best damn fried clams you'll ever eat for about eight bucks, but overall, even in high summer, the place just always seemed kind of bleak. Symbolic of the bleakness, and paradoxically the most fun place in town, was Marden's. Marden's is a small chain of what can best be described as closeout stores. At Marden's, you can buy everything from discontinued brands of shampoo to over-the-counter medications that are just this side of expired, to kitchenware, to toys, to shoes, to designer sportswear, to power tools and molly bolts to toolbelts and work boots and carpeting and automotive supplies. Marden's was recently even the subject of a New Yorker article, because the chain had the rather dubious distinction of being one of two distributors of a large assortment of designer clothing rescued from the Century 21 store in lower Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11/2001, complete with World Trade Center dust.

For all the fun to be had buying bags and bags of Assorted Stuff at Marden's, its dim lighting and garage-like interior and drab cashiers, and at Christmastime, the somewhat forced gaiety of the tinsel that some relentlessly cheery soul drapes over the place, somehow seems sad. And every time I shopped there, I came home grateful to live in crazy old New Jersey, where you can turn on the radio and hear Chris Russo screaming to some caller with his trademark ferocious Brooklyn brogue; where the traffic is awful and the people are surly. I'm not sure why; perhaps it's just overflow from the manic energy of New York, the city where anything can happen; and indeed, now everything has.

In Miguel Arteta 's new film, THE GOOD GIRL, the Zen of Marden's is re-created in the Retail Rodeo, a poor man's Wal-Mart in some stultifying Texas town, probably with a name like Perdition or Hopelessness or Futility or Asshole; one of those "pissant burbs", as Stephen King would call it, in which nothing much happens and you can die "with unlived lives still flowing in yer veins." Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston) works at Retail Rodeo and lives in said pissant burb with her good-natured but somewhat dim housepainter husband Phil (William C. Reilly), who spends most of his free time watching TV and sharing doobies with his partner Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Justine suffers from a vague feeling of unrest, combined with resentment born of her conviction that her childlessness is a result of Phil's THC-lowered sperm count.

Into Justine's drab universe, embodied as it is in the Retail Rodeo, comes a young man who calls himself Holden, and is inevitably perpetually reading THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of those sloe-eyed, hyperemotional adolescent males whose personal wreckage is mistaken for sensitivity by a certain kind of girl. Inevitably, Holden fancies himself a writer; a creative soul misunderstood by everyone from his coldly distant parents to the world at large. Sparks fly, and soon a shared hatred for everything in the world leads this ill-suited and ill-fated pair to the local hotsheets motel. Having made this mistaken choice, Justine soon finds that the mistakes are careening out of control. Will Justine break free of her own bleak, limited existence? Will she and Holden become a millennial Bonnie and Clyde? And is following one's impulses the only way to feel alive?

All this makes THE GOOD GIRL sound far more ambitous than it is, for its microcosmic universe bears far more resemblance to Ken Lonergan's 2000 sleeper YOU CAN COUNT ON ME than to the larger pretentions that eluded another adultery drama, Adrian Lyne's UNFAITHFUL, earlier this summer. Like Lonergan, screenwriter Mike White finds drama in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. What makes a film like this work is well-drawn characters brought to life in subtle performances, peppered with just the right touch of wry humor. From this standpoint, THE GOOD GIRL triumphs.

I am probably the only female in America who has never even once seen an episode of FRIENDS, so my experience with the phenomenon that is Mrs. Brad Pitt is limited to her competent but hardly groundbreaking work in Mike Judge's underrated OFFICE SPACE. Here, she is pretty enough to be the Pork Rinds Queen of the local county fair, but carries herself with the kind of hopeless slouch that comes from looking down the corridor of one's future and seeing nothing but more of the same. It's not the kind of performance that tears through the screen, but it establishes Jennifer Aniston as a Legitimate Actress. She renders Justine as the kind of gal who is defined solely in terms of how she is seen by others. Whether silently seething as husband Phil smokes dope night after night while getting paint on the new sofa, or sleeping with Bubba to keep him from telling Phil about her extramarital activities, or allowing Phil to handle her breast so that he can jerk off in a cup for a sperm test, it's no wonder that when Holden says "I want to knock your head open and see what's inside," she's smitten. He may be a whiny, messed-up kid, but compared to what Justine deals with every day, he's fascinating.

Aniston holds her own against some of the best indie actors in the business. John C. Reilly manages to make the affable but dim Phil something other than the uncouth boor he could have been. Tim Blake Nelson, a preposterously homely man who looks like a failed preliminary character sketch from an early Chuck Jones cartoon, here draws a more malevolent version of the trademark Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel schtick that made his rendering of the dimwitted Delmar so memorable in O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU. Screenwriter Mike White has most of the funniest lines as a more mean-spirited Ned Flanders-type in the personage of security guard Corny, who leads Bible classes with topics like "If We Are Made In God's Image, What Does That Say About God?". Zooey Deschanel, an adorably magnetic character actress who was so memorable telling Patrick Fugit "One will be cool" in ALMOST FAMOUS, nearly steals the movie as a wisecracking store clerk, advising female customers on the application of drain cleaner in caring for their own personal plumbing.

Yet it falls on the shoulders of the currently ubiquitous Jake Gyllenhaal to hold the whole mess together, and he accomplishes this feat in a shattering performance as the moody, psychotic Holden. Holden is a less talented, but far more destructive version of Tobey Maguire's James Leer character from Curtis Hanson's WONDER BOYS. Gyllenhaal bears more than a passing resemblance to Maguire, and seems to be taking over this kind of role now that Maguire is raking in the big bucks. He's less subtle than Maguire, but far edgier, and perfectly conveys Holden's brittle hold on the mere vestiges of sanity he has.

Arteta's direction reflects the drab environs of its setting. From the sickly lighting in the Retail Rodeo to the cheap furniture that Justine regards as "nice things" to the 1970's harvest gold interior of the hotsheets motel that is Holden and Justine's trysting place to Bubba's tumbledown home, Arteta paints a picture of lives lived in a state of quiet desperation. Yet Justine is shown to be as much an architect of as victim of her own situation, and as such, is only marginally more sympathetic than Diane Lane's more affluent but equally restless philanderer in UNFAITHFUL earlier this year. However, Arteta is far kinder to his adulterous protagonist than is Adrian Lyne to his, and allows her to not only make the right choice, to be the eponymous good girl of the title, but with seemingly no consequences.

And it is that kind of facile resolution that keeps THE GOOD GIRL stuck in the realm of a very good picture but keeps it from the kind of transcendence that Ken Lonergan brought to his anxious, incomplete denouement in YOU CAN COUNT ON ME. Still, a smart script and fine performances by a cohesive ensemble cast make THE GOOD GIRL a worthy entry in a surprisingly rewarding summer for small films.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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