Criticism

The Good Girl

“In every way, The Good Girl outclasses the many crudely-made, half-baked, out-of-focus films created under the “indie” banner these days.”

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Good Girls Don’t

New film by Chuck and Buck creators explores the complexities of the human heart

If life were fair, movies like The Good Girl would dominate Box Office Top Ten lists. And in a perfect world, performances like those of Jennifer Aniston, John C. Reilly and Tim Blake Nelson would sweep the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and every two-bit ceremony in between. A deeply moving portrait of despair, frustration and regret, The Good Girl shines as an example of independent filmmaking at its absolute best. With nary a single rubber alien or digitized explosion, this bittersweet comedy spellbinds its audience with a sorrowful story of a love affair careening wildly out of control.

The Good Girl marks the second collaboration between director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White. As in their previous film, Chuck and Buck (and even Arteta’s first film, Star Maps), here the duo examines the lives of those living on the outer fringes of society. Once again, they have created a brutally honest world where pain and humor gruesomely collide. And once again, they populate this world with well-intentioned characters who simply aren’t equipped to handle what life throws their way.

“As a girl, you see the world as a giant candy store,” says Justine (Aniston) as the film opens. “But then one day, you wake up and see it’s a big prison, and you’re on death row. Are the other folks cows, chewing their cud, or are they just keeping quiet, like you, planning their escapes?” For Justine, escape from her dreary existence in a small Texas town seems a hopeless improbability. At 30, she’s resigned herself to an empty, miserable life of missed opportunities and unfulfilled expectations. Her job as cashier at a tacky discount store called Rodeo Roundup is tolerable, but just barely. And her marriage to Phil (Reilly), her high school sweetheart, provides little happiness; although he earnestly adores Justine, Phil is oblivious to her misery, mainly because he spends most of his time smoking pot with his housepainting buddy, Bubba (Nelson).

Things brighten for Justine when Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a quiet boy fixated on The Catcher in the Rye, joins the staff at the Rodeo Roundup. Thrilled by Holden’s single-minded attention to her, Justine finds herself increasingly attracted to him. Soon, against her better judgment, she begins an affair with the younger man. But it isn’t long before Holden’s youthful infatuation becomes obsessive. The sudden death of a co-worker jars Justine back into reality, but by then things have already gone too far. Nevertheless, she struggles desperately to undo what’s been done, making one terrible decision after another in the process.

There’s a reason Jennifer Aniston has had more success in her film career than most of her fellow Friends: she’s the best actor among them. She proves it here with a calculated performance of incredible depth. In her capable hands, Justine emanates longing and disillusionment, yet maintains an ironic humor that serves as her only defense. But Aniston isn’t alone in her bravura. Every character – even the smallest role – is superbly acted. Gyllenhaal deftly handles his tasks as Holden, an angst-filled misfit who could easily have veered into caricature. Reilly delivers a heartbreaking performance as the boorish but loving Phil. And Nelson is brilliant as a simpleton with sinister inclinations. Even Justine’s coworkers at the Rodeo Roundup – Grace (Deborah Rush), a perky but unhappy health nut, Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), a blisteringly hostile clerk, and Corny (Mike White), a hysterically serious Bible-thumper – make the absolute most of their limited screen time.

In every way, The Good Girl outclasses the many crudely-made, half-baked, out-of-focus films created under the “indie” banner these days. White’s outstanding script buzzes with southern authenticity (“You don’t get paid to pick your crack,” admonishes one of Justine’s co-workers). Intentionally washed-out cinematography creates a fittingly bleak atmosphere. And the settings – from the oppressive, prison-like environs of the Rodeo Roundup to the depressing, threadbare rooms of the Motel Glen Capri – perfectly capture the desolation of this suburban wasteland.

“Is this your last best chance,” Justine ponders to herself early on. “Are you going to take it? Or are you going to your grave with unlived life in your veins?” It’s the heartbreaking question at the center of The Good Girl, one that grounds the film and unites the players in the agonizing realm of humanity.

Michael Rucker writes about film for HX and Empire magazines, and is a regular contributor to Gay City News. 

(Appeared in Gay City News)

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