GOOD GIRL, THE (director: Miguel Arteta; screenwriter: Mike White; cinematographer: Enrique Chediak; editor: Jeff Betancourt; music: Stephen Thomas Cavit; cast: Jennifer Aniston (Justine Last), Mike White (Corny), Jake Gyllenhaal (Holden Worther), Deborah Rush (Gwen Jackson), John Carroll Lynch (Jack Field, Your Store Manager), John C. Reilly (Phil Last), Tim Blake Nelson (Bubba), Zooey Deschanel (Cheryl), John Doe (Mr. Worther); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Carol Baum; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2002)
“What I bought into was the way Jennifer Aniston handled herself, as I found her to be very appealing in this “aw shucks, I’m so ordinary” role. “

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Good Girl” is a well-presented, insightful, and lively little film. It’s an ensemble comedy-drama about those trying to escape from life. I loved the way the film’s title is presented as having a double meaning because if the heroine, who becomes pregnant as a result of her adultery and is also a consummate liar, is really a good girl I’d be anxious to know who is a bad girl. Its cute story is set in a benign Wal-Mart-like atmosphere and is about those from the low-end of the workforce, who go through life without seeing the “Big Picture.” They only watch cartoons on TV. These likable, sympathetic, disturbed, and not overly brainy characters all play their hayseed parts convincingly, but the setup proves to be too cute and in its attempts to latch onto a serious emotional dilemma it turns itself into a soap opera rather than ringing up a big sale for drama.

The film is driven by a superb performance from its star Jennifer Aniston as Justine Last, the angst-driven 30-year-old cashier in a West Texas small-town chain department store called Retail Rodeo. Justine is not only unhappy with her dead-end job but questions her seven year childless marriage to unambitious, pot smoking, nice guy, couch potato, cuddly, house painter hubby named Phil (John C. Reilly). Reilly’s great acting skills make his character have a life beyond being a caricature, as he adds humanity and wit to his laid-back role of someone who doesn’t deserve to be disliked and thought of as being a “pig” by his frustrated wife.

The “Chuck and Buck” team of director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter/actor Mike White also collaborates on this bittersweet tale, but with less results in the area of laugh-out-loud comedy and also with a slightly more optimistic ending than in their previous one (at least, I think that’s so). But they come up with a realistic and honest film based on White’s sparkling script, and it is especially good considering the modest budget this indie had to work with.

Justine takes a careful look at her closest friend at work the 40-year-old, upbeat, health conscious, spinster Gwen (Deborah Rush), and can’t imagine being in her position ten years from now. Gwen escapes life by throwing herself completely into her work. While Justine feels her life is like being in prison and all the optimism she once had has faded as she grew up.

At home, Phil and his close buddy and house painter partner Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) are watching TV, boozing it up and smoking pot while sitting on her brand new sofa, the pride of her home furnishings, and wet paint from their work clothes rubs off on the couch. What’s really bugging Justine is that she thinks if she had a child all could work out, and she wonders if all the weed hubby smokes is the reason why she can’t become pregnant.

The bachelor Bubba escapes his unhappiness by idolizing Phil and thinking he has married the perfect girl, the only one on the planet he could ever be with. Even though Justine’s unavailable he can still get a secondary high from hanging out with his bosom buddy, someone he completely identifies with and uses in a parasitic way to escape reality by refusing to live his own life.

At work, Justine takes notice of the store’s brooding new introverted 22-year-old employee Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is reading J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” whenever he’s not busy as a cashier. Despite his agitated and depressive state, to her he seems to be a breath of fresh air — someone who might have some juice in him and is not stuck in a rut like all her other acquaintances. Chatting him up she soon discovers his real name is Tom Worther and that he named himself after the hero of the book, but she also finds out to her dismay that the Holden character in the book ended up going bonkers.

Holden is an aspiring writer who dropped out of college because he became an alcoholic, but despite reservations she lays all her hopes on changing her life through him. Their affair takes them to a cheap motel and to the storeroom at work, as the troubled boy still lives at home and has a problem dealing with reality. Holden also lays on her his two poorly disguised autobiographies that are imitative of the book he’s reading, where he passes himself off as someone who has lost his way because no one he meets understands him (his means of escape is by living a fictional existence through the Holden in the book). Soon Holden becomes obsessive and believes she’s the only one who can save him. Justine realizes that she didn’t get liberation but instead became an object of his poisonous obsession. In fact, Holden’s just as out of it as the hubby she wants to dump and she is even more depressed now by exchanging one dope for another.

The store is filled with zany characters like Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), who gets her mischievous kicks when doing the P.A. system store announcements and dropping into them tawdry messages that the indifferent customers never seem to notice. When she’s reassigned to do Women’s Makeovers, she also gets carried away and as a goof puts too much cosmetic on her hapless customer’s faces (they are also trying to escape life through the make-over). Corky (Mike White) is a nerdy, bland, security guard wrapped up in his Jesus trip and Bible-study activities, and escapes life through believing he has found his personal Savior. The store manager, Jack Field (John Carroll Lynch), escapes by overeating and expressing sentimental clichés for every occasion.

The point the film makes is that everyone seems to find some escape from life, but the question just seems to be what are the best escapes. Though I thought the film did a good job of fleshing out these characters through its sharp edged characterizations I, nevertheless, never felt deeply compelled by the story or by the plight of the main characters. I always felt everything fell too readily in place, as there was just no mess to clean up. Rather there was only a mess to ignore and what was ignored interested me more than what was finally said.

This film is about those who want to achieve happiness and don’t know how. Justine is the only character who has the intelligence and imagination to find a way out of her dilemma. Therein lies the ray of hope the film offers, despite how dumbly Justine reacts when situations come up unexpectedly. What I bought into was the way Jennifer Aniston handled herself, as I found her to be very appealing in this “aw shucks, I’m so ordinary” role.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”