If the cinema, especially in the form of the summer spectacular, can transport us to the farthest boundaries of the universe and across the seas of time, it can also now and then traverse the shorter but more perilous expanses of the mind, explore the darker and more complicated territory of the human heart.
In a small movie like The Good Girl, the writing, directing, and acting mean more (and cost less) than the array of chemical, mechanical, optical, and electronic paraphernalia that provide the substance of far too many big pictures; on the other hand, the movie takes far more risks than any superhero defending the world from annihilation. That such films coexist with the box office spectaculars should provide at least a bit of comfort for students and lovers of the art.
The good girl of the title is Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston), who delivers a sporadic narrative of a series of domestic events that vaguely resembles any number of newspaper stories. Justine lives in some nameless Texas town and works at the movie's central location, the Retail Rodeo, a hideous discount department store of the K-mart variety.
The Retail Rodeo actually dominates the movie, not only occupying its spatial center but also providing the means by which the characters interact, generating the major action, and even suggesting the work's intellectual and emotional significance.
In common with the vast majority of people, Justine feels a vague, undifferentiated discontent with just about everything she knows and possesses, an inchoate sense that life has passed her by, that nothing exciting, important, or fulfilling will ever happen to her. Like many of her colleagues, Justine moves numbly through a job she detests, inhabiting a life and even a self she has come to hate. Beyond the dreary daily round at Retail Rodeo, she goes home to a boring, childless marriage to a house painter named Phil (John C. Reilly), who spends his leisure hours happily stoned, watching afternoon cartoons with his partner and best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson).
As literature and cinema, not to speak of life itself, have repeatedly demonstrated, such a situation must inevitably lead to some emotional explosion, which usually translates as a sexual involvement. Justine falls in love with a handsome younger co-worker, Tommy Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), who calls himself Holden after the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, which suggests the quality and maturity of his thought processes (it's a great book, but also something like Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther for the 20th century --- Holden's last name may consciously invoke that novel).
Holden's intensity and literary aspirations contrast with the placid dullness of her stoned, lumpish husband, and he shares her sense of dissatisfaction and self pity, the not uncommon feeling of being different and deserving more; such shared perceptions and sympathies probably provide as good a basis for a relationship as any other.
The two embark on a passionate affair, stealing afternoons in a motel, making love in the stockroom of Retail Rodeo, which of course does not escape the notice of their fellow employees. After the initial stages of infatuation pass and her ardor cools somewhat, Justine finds herself in effect trapped by her own actions, perhaps more helpless and confused about her present and future than before she met Holden.
Further, the sly and stupid Bubba discovers the relationship and demands a sordid sexual blackmail. A series of large and small disasters ultimately precipitates an entirely predictable catastrophe, which simultaneously solves a number of Justine's complicated problems while also creating for her a destiny that at best seems entirely ambiguous.
Although laced liberally with goofy comedy, deadpan humor, and some well-observed and occasionally corrosive social satire, the picture follows an ever darkening path to its final resolution. In a long American literary tradition that includes such writers as Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson (and movies like Picnic and The Last Picture Show) it reflects the suffocation, desperation, and loneliness of village life, the hopelessness of ordinary people with vague dreams of something better, little chance of fulfilling those dreams, and no means of expressing their feelings beyond a constant sadness and a recurrent hostility.
Although Holden fancies himself a writer, the only real poet in The Good Girl is Justine's colleague Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), who broadcasts outrageous and obscene sales announcements over the Retail Rodeo public address system and pushes both her behavior to customers and her language to the edge.
Almost all of actors in the small cast, both the principals and the supporting players, perform with terrific competence, capturing the look, the presence, the speech patterns of their characters with absolute conviction. They work smoothly with the precise dialogue and careful direction, appearing to speak not someone else's words but their own quirky or sad or humdrum thoughts. John C. Reilly, who makes a specialty of uncomprehending lunks, turns in another good job as Phil and John Carroll Lynch as Justine's boss seems entirely too real, as if he were not acting at all.
Jennifer Aniston, best known for her role in the successful situation comedy Friends, takes on a very different character in The Good Girl. Here she speaks mostly in a melancholy monotone, maintains a blank, sad expression to match her affectless speech, and moves with a palpable sense of defeat, demonstrating her unhappiness in her tentative gait, the slope of her shoulders, the defensive glances to each side as she enters the Retail Rodeo; when she makes her final desperate decision, it seems, despite its tragic consequences, only a natural choice, a calm acceptance of her destiny.
The Good Girl reflects with a terrible precision the sadness and perhaps even the inevitability of frustration and defeat, suggesting that in its modest way it may be one of the truest movies of the year.
The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, Mike White, Zooey Deschanel, Deborah Rush, John Carroll Lynch, Roxanne Hart, John Doe, Michael Hyatt, Aimee Garcia; written by Mike White; directed by Miguel Arteta. Little.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5, Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.