film review: The Good Girl ***

If Jennifer Aniston was looking for the ultimate anti-sitcom escape from her primetime television persona, The Good Girl was the perfect choice. As all Rembrandts aficionados know, Aniston became famous for portraying Rachel Green on the award-winning sitcom Friends.

Friends is a tube-world where likeable characters are thrust into situations that alter their ever-so exciting lives. The Good Girl is the cynical underbelly of this world. The characters are boring. They have meaningless jobs. They live in a meaningless town and nothing particularly lively happens to them. Surprisingly enough, this makes for an entertaining film.

The Good Girl does not conform to the normal Hollywood standards of filmmaking. The film’s writer and director previously collaborated on another drama/comedy, Chuck & Buck, a hit at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and winner of an Independent Spirit Award. The Good Girl is not destined to find such recognition, probably because Aniston’s presence is too mainstream for indie clicks, and too small to get a serious push for the major award shows. It’s simply a pleasurable sleeper worth checking out.

Aniston plays Justine Last, a small-town woman stuck in a thankless job at a discount store. Her husband, Phil, is a middle-aged, pot-smoking slacker, played by the hysterically dopey John C. Reilly (Magnolia, The Perfect Storm). Justine falls in love with one of her co-workers, a mysterious young man so obsessed with Catcher in The Rye that he’s renamed himself after its main character Holden Caulfield. Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, October Sky) turns in a terrific performance as Holden Worther, whose creepy personality drips into the tone of the film.

The plot paces along nicely with the help of a solid supporting cast, including Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous) and Mike White, the film’s writer. Nelson is particularly memorable as Phil’s best friend, who is secretly in love with Justine.

The story puts a microscope on these characters in their small Texas town, closely examining the confined relationships they share. Justine’s affair with Holden, and what it does to her marriage and life, is the core study.

The most important aspects of The Good Girl, as is common with most low-budget films, are the acting and the writing. Luckily, director Miguel Arteta has exceptional talent for developing well-rounded characters and embedding them in tense situations.

The film often takes a comedic stance on serious events that arise within the plot. The film is not afraid to turn a sad moment into a funny one, and vice versa. Writer Mike White deserves acknowledgement for his realistic blend of comedy and drama. He has written or co-written two sub-par teen comedies, Orange County and Dead Man on Campus. He also served as a writer and producer for the TV series Dawson’s Creek and the cancelled cult hit Freaks and Geeks. His screenplay for The Good Girl belongs right beside his other notable screenplay, Chuck & Buck.

Aniston won’t be showered by critics for her performance, but it certainly clears Leprechaun and Rock Star out of her cinematic path. Her attractiveness actually heightens the dead-end feel, as it contributes to her character’s lonely demeanor in a town filled with unattractive zombies.

Gyllenhaal is well on his way to super stardom. His performances in Donnie Darko and October Sky were equally amazing, and with this addition, his wipes away the lame stain he left with Bubble Boy. Gyllenhaal’s next movie is Moonlight Mile, a drama co-starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon.

The Good Girl is worthwhile for anyone who prefers a movie with intelligent character development and a well-crafted array of moods. If super mindless comedy is your bag, go Bubble Boy yourself.