An honest, unsentimental, modest and well-crafted film from the writer-director team behind 2000's awkward stalker indie buzz flick "Chuck and Buck," "The Good Girl" is the melancholy allegory about a once ambitious small-town woman desperate to escape the malignant malaise of her monotonous life.
The ennui of years in discount-retail hell, the desperation of being tethered to a lay-about, stoner husband and the regret of never having realized, or even pursued, any of her dreams have piled up as emotional ballast in Justine's life. And the weight of it all is manifested viscerally by Jennifer Aniston in a pensive, title-role performance of effectively plodding, downcast body language.
When a sullen, taciturn 22-year-old named Tom (Jake Gyllenhaal) -- who calls himself Holden in honor of his juvenile fixation with "The Catcher in the Rye" -- takes a job at the Retail Rodeo, Justine thinks she recognizes a kindred spirit. "I saw in your eyes that you hate the world," she says by way of introduction. "I hate it too."
It isn't long before their friendship becomes an ill-advised affair, with Holden -- who is unstable, obsessive, and more immature than 30-year-old Justine realized -- making wildly wide-eyed declarations of love and asking, "Who cares if someone finds out?"
A brilliant young actor who embodies each of his roles heart and soul, Gyllenhaal ("Donnie Darko," "Bubble Boy") wears his complex misanthropy on his sleeve. Holden believes his whole world can be made or unmade based on the outcome of his selfish, Shakespearean crush. "With you on my arm," he says with almost willful naivete, "my folks will think I've changed. They'll give me money to write my novel. I'll be immortal, then like J.D. Salinger, I'll just disappear."
It speaks to the strength of Aniston's performance that Justine never seems entirely foolish for falling into bed and into some kind of love with this psychological powder keg of a kid. Through his surprise rekindling of her capacity for desire, Justine begins to see Holden as the last chance she'll ever have to feel alive again -- and it makes her do stupid things she knows will catch up with her sooner rather than later.
But despite the strength of these empathetic performances -- not to mention those of John C. Reilly ("Boogie Nights," "The Perfect Storm") as Justine's derelict husband and Tim Blake Nelson ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") as his slack-jawed, profoundly insecure buddy who discovers Justine's secret and blackmails her for sex -- "The Good Girl" never quite realizes the caustic poignancy for which it's aiming.
The direction of Miguel Arteta captures all too well the lethargic nature of Justine's life, and it has unintended consequences for the film's ability to engage the viewer. As a result, an early willingness to go along with the heroine's bad instincts eventually gives way to a lot of second-guessing -- especially since it's far too obvious, far too early exactly what kind of bad spot she's going to find herself in when the you-know-what hits the fan.
Writer Mike White -- who wrote and starred as a mentally-challenged stalker in "Chuck and Buck," and has a small supporting role here as the Retail Rodeo's judgmental security guard -- infuses "The Good Girl" with touches of dark humor that give the movie an occasional kick in the pants. But he all too often burdens the characters with a lack of common sense that serves only to yank you out of the story with its obtrusiveness.
"The Good Girl" is a film in which the talent is undeniable but the results are underwhelming. Any impression the acting and the atmosphere of stymied angst make while the story is unfolding fades so quickly that six months from now those who see it will probably just remember the picture as "The One with the Sad Jennifer Aniston."
Run time: 93 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 27th February 2003
Production compaines: Hungry Eye Lowland Pictures B.V., Fox Searchlight Pictures, Flan de Coco Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Jennifer Aniston as Justine Last, Jake Gyllenhaal as Holden Worther, Zooey Deschanel as Cheryl, John C. Reilly as Phil Last, Deborah Rush as Gwen Jackson, Mike White as Corny, John Carroll Lynch as Jack Field, Your Store Manager, Tim Blake Nelson as Bubba, John Doe as Mr. Worther, Roxanne Hart as Mrs. Worther, Aimee Garcia as Nurse, Annie O'Donnell as Haggard Woman, Jon Shere as Lester, Alice Amter as Big Haired Woman, Jean Rhodes as Old Woman, Lalo Guerrero as Blackberry Vendor, Michael Hyatt as Floberta, Enzo as Bits, Ken Rudulph as Reporter, Jacquie Barnbrook as Heavy Set Woman
Also starring: John C Reilly
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