The Good Girl

(2002) ** 1/2 R
94 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Richard Benjamin. Cast: Jeff Daniels, Patricia Heaton, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Alan Cumming, Lynda Boyd.

Jennifer Aniston's latest attempt at a big-screen breakthrough is all about escape, which is appropriate for an actress staring down a ninth and final season on the image-defining hit sitcom Friends. Aniston performs admirably, her open face radiating boredom, hurt, and confusion, and yet neither she nor the film crosses over into indelible territory. The film asks the question, is Aniston's character bad or good? The Good Girl is hardly bad, but it's not exactly a role model, either.

Aniston plays Justine Last, the archetypal youngish woman trapped in a lackluster existence. Hers is in small-town Texas, where she works at the self-explanatory Retail Rodeo. She finds her job numbing and her husband Phil (John C. Reilly) a slovenly irritant. Phil and his buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) smoke pot and run their mouths aimlessly while Justine sinks deeper into a funk. Everything changes when the curious Justine strikes up a relationship with a young man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who calls himself "Holden" after his role model, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye. Like Holden Caulfield, Holden Worther is dark, disillusioned, oversexed, and mentally vulnerable, so he bonds with Justine in despair. After a series of mostly predictable bad decisions, Justine finds herself having to make the choice that will determine the rest of her life.

Director Miguel Arteta, screenwriter (and supporting player) Mike White, and producer Matthew Greenfield reunite here after their buzzed-about indie Chuck and Buck. The Good Girl is more accessible, with its household-name star, rude humor, and heterosexual conflict. The script and performance style evoke the Coen brothers, watered down, at least as superior as sympathetic to the fringy characters (Holden's parents, for instance, are never seen out of their living room upholstery). The film also includes Coen-esque mock portent ("They say the wind's coming in different lately"), a semi-ambiguous wrap-up, and supporting turns by Coen players Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou) and John Carroll Lynch (Fargo).

Here, too, is the attempt to blend cracked humor with pathos, but White might have been better advised to treat this as a wacky farce than a dark-tinged comedy-drama. Perhaps a straight-up comedy or drama would have been boring, but The Good Girl, as it is, disorients with its schizoid tone and keeps the characters very much at arm's length, despite the actors' best efforts. Aniston's pathological liar is almost lovable despite her horrid judgment, and Gyllenhaal and Reilly make compelling characters out of their half-ideal men: one lively but unstable, one loving but dull (one hopes, however, that Gyllenhaal is done being the poster boy-toy for disaffected older women). Nelson's most important material is pawned off to an Aniston voice-over, so he remains as caricaturish as White's Bible-loving security guard.

Despite the frustrations, The Good Girl evokes some good chuckles (especially in the bizarro world of Retail Rodeo), and the familiar morality-play themes reliably touch chords. I suppose that's "good" enough.

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