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Good Intentions

 

The Good Girl

Miguel Arteta, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.2

 

 

Posted: August 25, 2002

By Laurence Station

Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, who previously collaborated on 2000's darkly comic Chuck and Buck, move from examining how people can never truly escape the shadow of their past, to pondering the notion of getting what one wants and the subsequent poor choices that result from attempting to escape the attainment of those desires in the entertaining, if not entirely successful, The Good Girl.

Justine, a 30-year-old store clerk, is depressed; she's stifled in a dead-end job and a tiresome marriage to Phil (John C. Reilly), an unmotivated house painter more interested in smoking pot with his pal Bubba (the great Tim Blake Nelson) than getting to the root of his and Justine's inability to conceive a child. Justine (Jennifer Aniston, in a stellar, pitch-perfect performance) clearly wants something more out of life, anything to give it meaning, but, refreshingly, can't articulate exactly what. Cue 22-year-old Tom, a recently hired co-worker at the store where Justine works the cosmetics counter. Tom (Donnie Darko's Jake Gyllenhall, in another disturbed-youth turn) is a wannabe writer who clearly identifies way too closely with Catcher in the Rye: he's the kind of guy who puts Holden on his nametag. Tom's sad, puppy-dog eyes are just what the Wish Fulfillment Doctor ordered for bored Justine, and shortly the two of them are sneaking off to the stock room to make out or venturing off to a nearby motel.

Tom's clearly the polar opposite of folksy, faithful, even-tempered Phil; he's melodramatic and more than a little bipolar. He's also a recovering alcoholic, one bad binge away from being locked away in a psychiatric ward by his bland, clueless parents. Justine, thrilled to have anything to look forward to besides work and dozing off in front of the television, is fully enveloped in the heat and passion of the affair. But as the weeks go on, she begins to realize that infidelity isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially not with a crackpot like Tom. Oops! And before she can break off the affair, Bubba reveals he's aware of the fling and threatens to tell oblivious Phil unless Justine has sex with him.

Other surprises ensue, but the main issue remains what Justine will do to resolve the mess she's created. To the film's credit, her solution isn't of the pat, easy-out variety executed with knee-jerk proficiency in standard domestic dramas. Justine is far from perfect, but she understands the implications of her actions; her inherent self-centeredness proves the Good Girl's strongest element.

The film's weakest aspect, however, is plot. Simply put, there's too much of it. There's an unexpected pregnancy, Phil's discovery that he's impotent (uh-oh!), the entire Bubba blackmail angle, and a misguided attempt by Tom to bring about a secure financial future for himself and Justine. By contrast, the modest sketches of bored store workers trying just about anything to pass the time, overzealous Bible study group gatherings, and stolen moments between two people in love work marvelously. It's a shame the filmmakers felt the need to impose more structure on the Good Girl than it needed, or could sufficiently handle given the obvious production and budgetary constraints.

Arteta and White's heavy-handed reliance on plot contrivance is particularly irksome given their cavalier treatment of Tom and his unhinged nature, which isn't adequately explored. His parents are mere television-watching zombie caricatures, and there's no mention of what prior event(s) jumpstarted his downward spiral, other than the too-easy quip that his folks never "understood" him. Considering his importance to the story, and the subsequent actions his rash behavior provokes from Justine, more development would have definitely aided the film's overall effectiveness.

But if nothing else, The Good Girl shines as a breakout role for Aniston, who proves herself more than capable of handling characters with greater depth than people are used to seeing from her on the small screen. Sadly, the rest of the film doesn't measure up to her impressive standards. As a low-key take on suburban malaise that works best when examining the humdrum lives of its characters and stumbles when unnecessary plot points are introduced, The Good Girl lives up to its title. Good, but not great.

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