The Good Girl
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 9 August 2002
at the Retail Rodeo isn't so much fun as it might sound. Sure,
Justine (Jennifer Aniston) has experience on the cash register and
it's not like anyone puts much energy into shopping there, so that
part is easy enough. And working at the makeup counter, which she
does occasionally, might break up the routine. A little. But the
routine always returns with a vengeance. And Justine is weary. You
can see it in her slight slump, her shambling feet and slow-motion
a girl," Justine says as The Good Girl begins, "you
see the world as a giant candy store filled with sweet candy and
such." Now thirty, she gazes from her register, and the view is
definitely not sweet; the camera looks out a window-wall to the
mostly empty parking lot. When you're older, Justine sighs, you
realize that you're locked up in a prison. No way out. She doesn't
even imagine escape. Instead, she's "good" -- responsible,
quiet, resigned until she aches.
folks in Justine's small East Texas nowhere find vague, generally
ineffective ways "out." Her housepainter husband Phil
(John C. Reilly) escapes by smoking pot with his partner and best
friend since high school, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Coworker Cheryl
(Zooey Deschanel) dresses "punk" and rolls her eyes at the
middle-aged ladies who shuffle through her checkout line, Corny
(Mike White, who wrote the script), the security guard down at the
Retail Rodeo, finds solace in Bible study. Her coworker, Gwen
(Deborah Rush), makes sense of her life by "saving" women
at the makeup counter. And their boss (John Carroll Lynch) feels
best when he's announcing something -- pretty much anything -- over
the store's PA system, accompanied by an "appropriate"
song of his own choosing (following one employee's unexpected death,
Kate Smith's "I'll Be Seeing You").
Justine's black hole of a routine walks Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal),
glowering, self-consciously poetic, urgent. Born Tom ("my slave
name"), he has taken his current name in honor of his favorite
book, Catcher in the Rye (when he tells Justine this, she
asks if his name is "Catcher"). At first, the two share
lunchtime conversations, sitting at a picnic bench -- he regales her
with the plots of stories he's writing, all involving doomed teen
romance, suicidal inclinations, and desperate emotions.
Anxious-making, perhaps, or maybe just trite: what little you do
hear of his prose, mostly via Justine's reading aloud, is florid and
clunky. But it's also full of passion. Justine can relate. "I
was looking at you in the store and I liked how you kept to
yourself," she tells him. "I saw in your eyes that you
hate the world. I hate it too."
evolution from friendship to sexual trysting down at the local motel
occurs awkwardly and earnestly. Each is surprised and grateful to
be, as they put it, "gotten" (as in, "You get
me"). But somewhere between walking past Holden's parents in
the TV room and hiding out at the motel, Justine starts thinking
that the affair isn't quite what she anticipated; like a lot of
teenaged boys who feel their futures are crap, he's morose and
possessive. She feels guilty about Phil. And there is that great gap
in their ages: she tells Holden, "You're a writer, so you have
a goal, I guess." As for herself, recalling that once she
looked forward to running through that candy store, Justine says,
"Now I don't even know what to imagine anymore."
situation turns even gloomier when Bubba spots the lovers leaving
the motel one afternoon, and proceeds to blackmail Justine, for whom
he has always carried something of a torch. Actually, this
description doesn't quite cover it: Bubba wants to be Phil,
believing, because his own life is so miserable, that their married
life is perfect, or more to the point, that sex with Justine is a
defining experience. Such a convolution of logic -- and the way
Bubba uses it like a blunt instrument against the woman he purports
to "love" -- is awful but not surprising in a film written
by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, whose Chuck &
Buck plumbed similar depths of human longing and manipulation,
with similar legerdemain.
Chuck & Buck, however, The Good Girl gives viewers
a break, particularly in making Justine more conventionally
sympathetic than the difficult Buck. Some viewers will miss the
first film's relentlessness, but rather than contrast the two films,
it seems more useful to see them as part of an ongoing process, a
darkly comic exploration of relationships among characters who don't
know how to maintain them. Where Chuck & Buck considers
childlike "innocence" (even in manipulation), The Good
Girl looks at goodness as another form of innocence, equally
imposed and equally costly, a means of wreaking havoc, of shaping
fragile and necessary bonds.
movie delves into Justine's frustrations, her non-options (at one
point, she's literally at a crossroads, a traffic light, where she
must choose between Holden and Phil, an unknown future and an
all-too-known present). And it does so without condescending to her
or treating her limited understanding as a lack of intelligence (and
the heaps of praise for Aniston's performance are well-deserved). At
first, Justine believes that being "good" is a matter of
following rules, of not rocking boats. But when a friend dies
suddenly, and freakishly, she is not so much moved or even
frightened by the loss as she is galvanized to rethink her
relationships, less in terms of herself than others.
that's not to say that The Good Girl goes all soft, locates a
moral ground for being "good," or even asserts a model of
decent behavior in a cold, cruel, hateful world. Smartly and
disturbingly, it resists any such resolution. Superficially, the
finale looks like one you'd see in another movie, involving a
familial unit and smiles all around -- a finale where the limited
choices are somehow justified, celebrated, or just made bearable.
Not in this movie. Here, the unit is uncertain and the smiles aren't
so comforting as you might wish they were. Justine has been gotten,
and she's still trying to be good.
John C. Reilly
Tim Blake Nelson
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
or adult guardian.