The Good Girl
Director : Miguel Arteta
Screenplay : Mike White
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Jennifer Aniston (Justine Last), Jake Gyllenhaal (Holden Worther), John C. Reilly (Phil Last), Tim Blake Nelson (Bubba), John Carroll Lynch (Jack Field), Mike White (Corny), Deborah Rush (Gwen Jackson), Zooey Deschanel (Cheryl), John Doe (Mr. Worther), Roxanne Hart (Mrs. Worther)
While The Good Girl purports to be a quirky slice-of-life melodrama about simple people caught in a dead-end world, what it ultimately does is deflate the myth of escape. Jennifer Aniston, in an impressive dramatic turn, plays a sad woman who hates everything about her life, but is powerless to do anything about it. At one point, she literally finds herself at a crossroads, with one turn leading her down an empty stretch of highway to some kind of freedom and the other turn leading her right back into her humdrum existence, and the choice she makes and the events that follow tell us exactly what the film is about: We can never escape ourselves.
Ansiton plays Justine Last, who is 30 years old and has worked at the Retail Rodeo discount department store for "forever and a day." Justine's husband, Phil (John C. Reilly), is a house painter who comes home every night with his slack-jawed best friend and painting partner, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), and smokes dope and does little else. Thus, after a long day of giving cut-rate "make-overs" to unattractive women who have no interest in actually buying any products, Justine comes home to a stoned husband who has gotten paint all over the couch.
Justine's world is constructed as a weary trap, and we can't really blame here when she finds herself drawn to a new employee, 22-year-old Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a college drop-out who doesn't speak much, reads The Catcher in the Rye, and claims to be a writer of everything from short stories to poetry to screenplays. Gyllenhaal invests Holden with the same sad-eyed, oppressed misery that he brought to the titular teen character in Donnie Darko (2001), which is too much for Justine to resist. For her, Holden represents everything that is missing in her life, which finally gives her the ability to vocalize how much she hates it.
Holden, though, is ultimately a fraud—he's more miserable and needy than she is, his stories are terrible, and Holden isn't even his real name. But, worst of all, the escape that he offers Justine—a romantic, passionate, forbidden relationship with a sensitive man who understands her—is ultimately an illusion, a convention employed so many times by novels and movies that it is taken for granted as truth. Holden's oppressed romantic heroism turns out to be his own manufactured dillusion, which Justin learns slowly and a little too late.
In this way, The Good Girl is a deeply conservative and maybe even pessimistic film. Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, who last collaborated on the offbeat Chuck & Buck (2000), smooth over the film's despair with a veneer of quirky humor, mostly at the expense of the various characters. The Good Girl takes place in an unnamed small town in Texas, and virtually everyone is a caricature of southern yokelism, from the Retail Rodeo's overweight manager (John Carroll Lynch) whose in-store intercom eulogies for deceased employees are more funny than moving, to the store's security guard (played by Mike White), a born-again Christian named Corny who doesn't look tough enough to stop a shoplifting preteen.
Yet, at the same time, the film is genuine in the way it portrays Justine, Holden, and, particularly, Phil. Justine, who didn't go to college because she was afraid she would lose Phil, comes across as a decent human being who makes a series of desperate choices that lead her deeper and deeper into the kind of duplicity that she is entirely incapable of maintaining (she makes a lousy adulteress). Holden is by far the saddest of the characters, even if he is the one who temporarily brings passion into Justine's world. And, although many may overlook him, Phil is one of the crucial characters because, as played by John C. Reilly, he is not a bad guy. He's a bit dim, but his main sins are the two C's: contentment and complacency. He complains about painting houses, but overall he's so content in his life that it's impossible for him to imagine that his wife might be miserable. Reilly makes us feel for this character who might otherwise come across as irredeemable oaf, instead turning him into a man of somewhat fragile emotions and a deep capacity for forgiveness.
While all this talk of misery makes The Good Girl sound like a depressing experience, it's not. There's a lot of sadness, but the film's grasp of small human truths and sense of low-key humor keep it afloat. There are some serious narrative misfires, however, such as when Justine attempts, in an indirect way, to murder Holden in order to get him out of her life. It's a moment that is ridiculously far-fetched and frankly out of character. However, the film rights itself by the end, offering an ending that, on the surface is a happy one and can be read as a celebration of embracing life as it is, but underneath is a dark paen to the final death of the escape myth.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick