Chuck and Buck Creators Should Stick With Boy Stories
The Good Girl seems to have everything going for it, as far as independent black comedies are concerned: contempt for the American heartland; skepticism about societal institutions, like marriage and organized religion; having nothing nice to say about anyone, least of all its female lead, and being greatly pleased in that; star power in the form of Friends' Jennifer Aniston; indie cred delivered by a decent supporting cast (John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jake Gyllenhaal) and writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta, who last teamed up for the sublimely bizarre 2000 film Chuck & Buck; and the foresight to capitalize on the indie-film craze of exploiting older-gal/younger-guy relationships. How all these winning elements collide yet somehow fail to jell into a good movie is beyond me--although Girl's affected sarcasm and misanthropy are contagious.
The performances in Good Girl are competent, and its potboiler plot can't help but have a trashy allure. Who couldn't identify with the desperation of malcontent cashier Justine "Teeny" Last (Aniston)? She's worn out and tied down, her so-over-it attitude reflected in a delivery that barely rises above a monotone as she recounts events that recently rocked her world. Aniston's narration is reminiscent of Sissy Spacek's unexpressive, cliché-ridden voice over in 1973's Badlands--unlike Spacek's character, however, Justine never gets to go anywhere.
Instead, she's trapped in a tiny Texas town, married to pothead house painter Phil (Reilly), who spends most of his off-time working an ass-groove into her couch with his goofy, quietly envious sidekick, Bubba (Nelson). The rest of her life is consumed with her drab gig hawking cosmetics at the Retail Rodeo, which doesn't provide Teeny with much of a creative outlet. That is, until she finds a means of acting out via some stockroom hanky-panky with a brooding, J.D. Salinger-worshipping co-worker, played by indie film's current It Boy for postadolescent angst, Gyllenhaal (his name tag reads holden, which, needless to say, isn't really his name). He murmurs something to her about them being kindred spirits with a shared hatred for the world; she buys it. Their indiscreet affair is the talk of their workplace (peopled with predictably gossipy co-workers, including surly clerk Zooey Deschanel, who is so wonderful I wish the whole movie were about her, and a duplicitous born-again security guard played by Good Girl screenwriter White) and, eventually, the whole town. Meanwhile, Holden gradually unveils a scary intensity and instability Justine hadn't counted on. And then, everything promptly turns to shit.
The problem with Girl isn't that it is populated with mostly unlikable, unpleasant characters, although that fact certainly doesn't help matters any. It is the filmmakers' condescending attitudes toward the characters that is the deal breaker here. Justine is no prize, but you feel for her: She is stuck in a rut, and you can understand her need to bust loose. And it's easy to empathize with her surprise upon discovering the film's central irony: that doing something passionate and impulsive--such as having an extramarital affair--requires more cunning and premeditation than either Justine or Holden is capable of. Justine missed the boat on the concept that while a banal, bourgeois existence is pretty dull, it's the price you pay for security. (She missed the boat on a lot of concepts.) Sadly, she's Girl's smartest character. It's telling that the filmmakers made her less intelligent than the film's intended audience (anyone not comforted by his or her moral superiority to this thirtysomething floozy, the film suggests, should cover their tracks better).
I don't mean to be a complete sourpuss about what Girl has to offer. It's subversively humorous--always a good quality--and appealingly tawdry, and is well-acted by a capable, offbeat ensemble. But The Good Girl's targets are too obvious, its point too muddled, and its willingness to be simultaneously punitive and patronizing is, ultimately, a turnoff.