Good Girl, The (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For most people, there is great comfort in routine. We cling to it like an old friend, drifting through life with the certain knowledge that tomorrow will be much like today, which is much like yesterday and the day before that. There's a certain sense of passive security that comes from a routine. Yet, often, just at the edges of our reality, there's a vague feeling of disquiet, as if something isn't quite as it should be. That's because conforming to a routine is like willingly consigning oneself to a gilded cage. It may be pleasant and sheltered, but the bars are in place, and there are times when the need for freedom is almost suffocating.

For Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston), the comfort of routine has crippled her. By her own admission, she feels like she's in a prison on death row. Life has become an unbearable wasteland of sameness - a trek to oblivion where her sole companions are monotony and weariness. For Justine, the cage is not gilded and the bars are so close together that she can barely see through the gaps. She has a job, a husband, and a home, but none of those things mean anything, except to offer the bland assurance that they were there yesterday, are there today, and will be there tomorrow. She's a retail clerk at a place called Retail Rodeo, an establishment that makes Wal Mart look upscale. Her husband, Phil (John C. Reilly) is a house painter who spends his days working and his evenings sitting in front of the TV and smoking pot with his best friend, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Phil isn't a terrible husband - he doesn't beat Justine and he occasionally seems to care about her - but he's not the man Justine thought she married seven years ago.

Then along comes Holden Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 22-year old who joins the Retail Rodeo staff. He keeps to himself and reads Catcher in the Rye during his lunch breaks (he took his adopted name from the novel). Holden is a lost soul. Like Justine, he is dissatisfied with the routine of his life. She is drawn to him, and he becomes obsessed by her. Soon, they have embarked upon the kind of explosive affair that can only result when two people are drowning in desperation. At first, Justine convinces herself that she loves Holden, but that illusion passes. Then, she recognizes that being with him, which at first seemed like freedom, is just another cage. He is unbalanced, and that mental instability makes him a danger to himself and to others. (At one point, he makes what he considers to be a romantic statement by saying, "I want to knock your head open and see what's inside.") In the end, Justine finds herself at the crossroads, and, considering the degree of acuity with which her character has been presented, we know what she's going to do before she does.

The Good Girl is an effective portrait of a life in stasis - of the power of inertia to arrest development in a dead-end existence. The film's tone, crafted and nurtured by director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White (the duo responsible for Chuck & Buck), is grim, in part because the real world is full of people like Justine - individuals whose lives lack purpose and who long for the kind of freedom they don't have the courage to pursue. It's worth noting that, as we discover late in the film, Phil feels just as trapped as Justine, except he uses pot to facilitate his escape.

As was true of Chuck & Buck, Arteta and White pepper the film with moments of dark, satirical comedy. One of the principal conduits of this is Justine's co-worker, Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel, the sister in Almost Famous), who loves tossing profanities and inanities into the "Welcome Shoppers" announcements she makes over the store public address system. (The oblivious customers don't notice.) There's also a Bible-thumping security guard (played by White) who is keen to have Justine attend one of his Bible studies.

For Jennifer Aniston, this is clearly an attempt to escape the Friends typecasting. Her performance is forceful and effective - she effortlessly submerges herself into the role, and, after only a moment's hesitation, Aniston has vanished and all that's left is lonely, trapped Justine. Many actors, especially those who are identified with one particular role, bring a great deal of baggage with them to any part. That's not the case here. Meanwhile, John C. Reilly plays Phil as a dullard without ambition, and Jake Gyllenhaal is creepy as the too-intense Holden.

Some Aniston fans may be disappointed - this isn't the kind of lighthearted, throw-away film she has done in the past. It's a work of some substance that requires an investment of attention and effort on the part of the viewer. The Good Girl is not mainstream fare. It does not have happy ending (instead, it has a fitting one) and ignores the traditional formulas. Instead, The Good Girl offers nothing more spectacular than a character study. And, although The Good Girl's protagonist may be trapped by routine, that's one claim that can never be made about the movie.

Good Girl, The (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2002-08-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1