the good girl (2002)


director: miguel arteta

jennifer aniston, john c. reilly, jake gyllenhaal

Miguel Arteta's The Good Girl is set in the glamour-free land of "just folks", that world outside the big cities from which folks are constantly dreaming of escape, at least according to movies set there. It's a world of dead-end jobs and tract housing, of marriages that quickly subside into lethargy and affairs that are doomed before they start. It's a wonder anyone lives there at all.

Jennifer Aniston plays Justine, the good girl of the title, and it was as a girl, we learn in an opening voiceover, that she formed an optimistic view of the world that has been utterly shattered. She's married to a genial, ambitionless pothead (John C. Reilly, characteristically solid here as in almost every role he plays) who seems more in tune with his lunkhead buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) than with his wife. (Yes, this is that world where men are called Bubba.) She's trapped in a grindingly dull job in a shabby discount store, the kind that Wal-Marts were created to destroy, but her town obviously doesn't even rate a Wal-Mart.

Her sole chance at escape, or just diversion, is provided by a sullen fellow clerk who calls himself Holden, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as a sort of discount version of every teen loner and misfit in history. According to Justine, they're drawn together because "we both hate the world", when it's perfectly obvious that they just hate their lives, or perhaps only themselves. No matter - they both crave the possibility of escape, and the thrill of doing something illicit, so we know that their affair will be less a grand passion than a flailing kick at the foundation of their lives.

If it all seems a bit predictable, it's because this kind of love story - or lust story, to be truthful - is a venerable convention, in both books and movies, as is the spectacle of the famous actress dowdying down to play someone who could concievably be one of her fans. Aniston does a pretty decent job, mostly by draining her posture and her face of every lively impulse that animates Rachel, the character that made her famous. Only once, when Justine runs across the parking lot of the discount store with tiny, high-heel hobbled steps despite wearing sneakers, do we catch an inadvertent glimpse of Rachel, her "Friends" alter ego, emerging like an old habit.

If the story - and the ending - of The Good Girl seems a bit predictable, it's because Arteta and his screenwriter Mike White (creators of the much more original Chuck and Buck) are working with a story genre so burnished and hoary it would have seemed rote to Shakespeare. Even Justine's choice and Holden's fate seem inevitable - the young man sacrificed for the sake of the family. The only way to judge the film is by the quality of the performances, which are uniformly superb, and the conviction the actors bring to their roles, which is admirable.