Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 29, 2002
The Good Girl
Starring Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Written by Mike White. Rated R.
Last Place

Marriage and a retail store ensnare Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl.


As a little girl, you see the world like a candy store ... but one day, you look around and see a prison.” That voiceover line is the first thing you hear in The Good Girl, and it lets you know you’re in for something different. It’s not the line itself so much as it is Jennifer Aniston’s mournful Texas-accented delivery of it. The problem with being a star of a long-running television show is turning out 26 new performances every year. That kind of exposure tends to exhaust even the best actors’ resources; if Jason Alexander or Dennis Franz got a major role in a film, would they be able to surprise anyone with what they do? One solution for an actor is to play a role that’s markedly different from the one he or she plays on tv, which is what Aniston does here. While the result isn’t quite a revelation, it’s more than a surprise. Let’s call it a shock.

She plays Justine Last, a cosmetics clerk in a discount store called Retail Rodeo. She feels trapped by her job, the small Texas town where she lives, and her marriage to Phil (John C. Reilly), a house painter with no greater ambition than to sit on his couch and get stoned with his best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Severely depressed, she’s drawn to a cashier (Jake Gyllenhaal) who calls himself “Holden” after the character in The Catcher in the Rye — his real name is Tom, which he refers to as his “slave name.” He has this perpetually wounded expression in his eyes, he writes stories, and he promises to love her forever. Justine gets so swept up in the younger man’s ardor that she doesn’t notice the warning signs, like his history of alcohol problems or the fact that all his autobiographical stories end in suicide.

Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White collaborated two years ago on an extremely creepy comedy called Chuck & Buck. This movie isn’t nearly as twisted, although Holden bears a strong resemblance to that movie’s Buck — sensitive and faithful but clingy and emotionally arrested. The filmmakers have established an odd rapport between Arteta’s slow and deliberate storytelling rhythm, and White’s need to end every scene with a comic zinger. It works for them: White’s humor keeps things light and dry, while Arteta’s pacing keeps the material from settling into a sitcom groove. Compared to Chuck & Buck, this movie is much more realistic, though it’s not without its outrageous touches.

Most of these are courtesy of Retail Rodeo, which deserves to join the cinematic pantheon of visions of workplace hell, alongside the job sites in Clerks, Clockwatchers, Office Space, and Being John Malkovich. What sets this movie apart is its terrifying plausibility. The store’s décor is halfway between a Wal-Mart and a Dollar Discount store, and it’s something that you can easily imagine walking into in real life. No wonder Justine’s depressed. Her co-workers are surreally disaffected as well. They include a compulsive-eating store manager (John Carroll Lynch), a cheery Christian fundamentalist security guard (screenwriter White), and a fellow clerk (Zooey Deschanel) who plays mind games with the customers and injects sarcastic comments into her droning announcements over the store’s P.A. system — Deschanel’s deadpan performance is priceless.

The ensemble cast is strong, and Arteta puts some stubble and a decent haircut on Gyllenhaal and finds a sullen beauty in this actor, who usually gets cast in dorky roles. The film’s emotional weight, though, comes from Aniston, whose despair billows off the screen in huge clouds. Her natural vivaciousness makes Justine into a lively spirit that has almost been crushed. Aniston doesn’t achieve a complete transformation; the camera catches her in a few Rachel-like moves, and she occasionally loses the handle on her accent. Even so, the script puts her through many different moods for this new character, and she doesn’t miss a turn. In the scene immediately after Justine has sex with Holden for the first time, she has a touching burst of tears at the thought of leaving him to go back home. Her intelligence lends credence to the later scenes, when Justine has to think of a way to retake control of her life. It culminates in her finest moment (and John C. Reilly’s as well), a great scene near the end where the truth, or at least a large part of it, comes out.

Justine is punished quite a bit for her infidelity, in incidents ranging from Bubba’s discovery of her affair and subsequent sexual blackmail, to having to help Phil masturbate when he visits a fertility clinic. These are played carefully for their serious and comic implications so that they neither weigh the film down nor make light of her situation, but it still feels like the film’s piling on. Nevertheless, whatever the movie may have against Justine is overwhelmed by Aniston’s uncanny presence. Her affecting and deeply empathetic performance in The Good Girl shows that it’s not impossible for a tv star to break out of entrenched habits.

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