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The Good Girl

  the good girl
Jennifer Aniston contemplates her next haircut.

© 2002, Fox Searchlight
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Miguel Arteta's "The Good Girl" (IMDb listing) walks in the same footsteps as an Alexander Payne film ("Citizen Ruth," "Election"). It's filled with characters who wish for a better life, arid small town backdrops, and an unceasingly detailed attention to lower-class suburban hell. "The Good Girl" isn't nearly as scathing as Payne's films, but more a valentine to the lonely-hearted souls that fill the corners of life.

Justine (Jennifer Aniston) is a depressed makeup clerk at a Texas discount store. Her marriage to her husband Phil (John C. Reilly), a pothead boob with an equally dim friend named Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), is going nowhere fast, and Justine dreams of a day when she can leave it all behind. When her eye catches a younger, mentally unreliable co-worker named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays almost the same role as he did in the recent "Lovely And Amazing"), Justine is smitten and excited at the idea of an affair. But when she takes on the young man in the game of love, Justine finds that her life, love, and lies become overwhelming as she struggles to keep her affair secret.

Am I making "The Good Girl" sound too depressing? The movie is far from a bummer. Rather, it's a film that explores unpleasant themes like the realization of life's limitations and missed opportunities. It does so with humor and warmth, but anytime a filmmaker decides to poke his nose around these issues, there's bound to be heartbreak. And that's what I adore so much about "The Good Girl." It balances on the fine line between laughing and crying. Credit that to Miguel Arteta's direction, which, with the help of a lilting acoustic score, bounces between laughs and tears without resorting to schmaltz or condescension. Coming off his lurid 1997 drama "Star Maps," and his wicked but inconsistent 2000 comedy "Chuck And Buck," "The Good Girl" seems all the more accomplished, as it is the first film that Arteta has made that actually feels authentic, both psychologically and narratively.

"The Good Girl" will be best known as the rare dramatic vehicle for Jennifer Aniston. Walking in the skin of the privileged, gorgeous Rachel Green for 8 years on NBC's "Friends," "The Good Girl" might seem to many as a pathetic bid for indie credibility. I hope all those in doubt of Aniston's talents see this film. A stunning performance of misfortune and resilience, Aniston carries "The Good Girl" away from just another small town depression trip and brings out the range of emotions in her character. And in the process, she provides the emotional spine for the entire film. She's just wonderful. Using her hang-dog eyes, Aniston conveys Justine's soul searching with just the smallest glance. Though I enjoyed her romantic comedy work in 1997's "Picture Perfect" and 1999's "Office Space," this turn in the "The Good Girl" makes a more vivid impression of an actress who can do much more than smile and flip her hair.

That's not to say Aniston has no help. Tim Blake Nelson turns in a deeply bizarre performance, John C. Reilly is touching as Justine's clueless husband, Zooey Deschanel ("Big Trouble") is hysterical as Justine's aggressively unprofessional co-worker, and "The Good Girl" screenwriter Mike White turns up as a Bible-loving store security guard. Arteta allows the audience to spend time with each character, making for a nice ensemble feel. The teamwork is there to support Aniston, but in the end, she's just one of the gang.

If "The Good Girl" has one flaw, it's that I didn't feel I understood Justine's predicament as well as I should. Saddled with a life she didn't want, I was expecting Arteta to spend more time on how Justine ended up in her current position. There are subtle hints dropped during the run of the show, but for this film, less isn't necessarily more. This doesn't dampen the power of "The Good Girl." Even without the distinct explanation of behavior, it's still a great film of unusually high emotional wealth.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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