Review: The Good Girl

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There are moments listening to the music in The Good Girl when you would swear you're hearing a bluegrass take on the score from American Beauty.

Weird as that mix might sound, it's not entirely inappropriate for a movie that's set in the dusty wilds of Texas and that circles some of the same ground as that award-winning indie film of a few years back. Drifting between comedy and drama very much like American Beauty did (although AB did it far more successfully), The Good Girl supplies a central character whose small town Texas ennui is almost a mirror to Kevin Spacey's suburban angst from that other film.

The problem with The Good Girl is that it mirrors a lot of other movies too and doesn't really add much that's new. That lack of originality wouldn't normally be that big of a deal — how many truly original movies do we get to see these days, anyway? It does present a problem with The Good Girl since this is one of those independent films (and you know the ones we're talking about) that tries above all to be "edgy" and "different," or at least "quirky." On the other hand, as proven by the recent success of Tadpole and one or two others of that ilk, dressing up old goods in a new package shouldn't really hurt The Good Girl's chances at the box office.

If anything, what will hurt the movie's box office is that scads of bright-eyed Jennifer Aniston fans will flock to the film eager to see what they presume to be the star's new romantic comedy and then find themselves bewildered by a movie that's a little too different. Not to mention being way too — yuk — dark.

Be that as it may, there's just not a whole lot that's particularly memorable about The Good Girl. It's not exactly a bad film, but it's not quite a good one either. The movie is a slightly better than passable black comedy, sprinkled throughout with nice moments but generally suffering as much from a lack of energy as it does from a lack of imagination. Outside of some clever comic dialogue and a handful of amusing bit characters, this winds up being a more-or-less lackluster film about lackluster lives.

Lackluster existence numero uno belongs to the aptly named Justine Last (Aniston, de-glammed and limp-haired), a deeply frustrated young woman leading a life of quiet desperation from behind the checkout counter of a local discount store called the Retail Rodeo. Justine has just turned 30, is unhappily childless and just doesn't know what to do with her life. All she can probably look forward to are more years of coming home each evening to the sight of her cheerful lump of a hubby (Boogie Nights' John C. Reilly) and his idiot friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) getting stoned in front of the TV while engaging in giggly non-conversations that would make Cheech and Chong sound like Oscar Wilde.

Almost for lack of anything better to do, Justine strikes up a friendship with the new kid at the Retail Rodeo, a dreamy-eyed, 22-year-old loner named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal). Holden tells his new gal pal that he's named after the famous rebel in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, although, as it turns out, the boy has actually named himself. When his parents call him Tom, Holden explains "that's my slave name."

Writer Mike White (Chuck and Buck) has an ear for dialogue and The Good Girl seizes on specific, odd little colloquialisms that the characters use again and again, until the words eventually become meaningless and absurd. Holden and Justine bond while whining about how "put upon" they feel, and how nobody "gets" them. It's the sort of running gag that might have been funny in a droll sort of way in a Coen Brothers movie, but here the effect is unintentionally repetitious and mildly annoying. "I saw it in your eyes that you hate the world," is the nicest thing Justine can think of to say, by way of introducing herself to her new future friend. "I hate it too," she adds.

Justine and Holden are misfits coming together out of mutual distrust of what used to be called "the system" —their jobs, their community, families, and just about everything else — a situation we've seen time and again in better movies. In The Good Girl it's all basically a setup for a series of plot twists that eventually veer into a vaguely comic, vaguely noir-ish territory also mined first and more effectively by the Coens. Friendship soon crosses the line into romance, or at least sex, and from there into obsession — at least for Holden — paving the way for Justine to begin realizing there's no way she's ever going to be remotely happy without first removing a few people permanently from her life.

Jennifer Aniston is on screen in almost every scene of The Good Girl, and she's actually quite good (even though it remains next to impossible to get yourself to believe for a second that this attractive, charismatic individual could actually find herself stuck in this dead-end world surrounded by losers and worse). Gyllenhaal turns in a solid performance as well, although he seems to be reprising essentially the same brooding, alienated outsider role that he's already played several times now, most recently in the sadly overlooked Donnie Darko. The smaller roles taken by the likes of Reilly, Nelson and Zooey Deschanel (as an off-kilter Retail Rodeo co-worker) are the best things about the movie. None of the parts are large enough to really stick in our minds, however, and consequentially don't make much of a difference.

One of the better small roles is played by screenwriter Mike White, who brings some of the same bizarre intensity to the part of a born-again security guard that he did to his role of a lovesick stalker in Chuck and Buck, the writer-actor's earlier collaboration with director Miguel Arteta. The basic arc of The Good Girl lacks the sharply focused, genuinely eccentric spin of that earlier work, but director Arteta manages to connect the dots in White's script, providing color for a polyester/fast-food world where would-be lovers arrange fateful meetings in front of the local Chuck E. Cheese, and all motel rooms are a uniform shade of moldy brown.

It's tough making a smart movie about stupid people without appearing condescending. Just ask the Coen Brothers. The Good Girl manages to get that much of it right, clearly displaying good-natured affection for most of its characters, even when they're being mean, stupid or petty. The film is never quite able to transcend its flat, cartoonish origins, though, with Arteta's more or less naturalistic directorial style proving an awkward fit with a story that, despite its traces of noir intrigue, is basically absurd.

Nothing in the movie jumps out at us screaming its wrongness, and, truth be told, the movie massages our sensibilities with many of the right, albeit predictable moves (we even get the obligatory Nick Drake tune at a critical juncture signifying the great poignancy of the moment). When it's all over and the final credits have rolled, though, odds are we'll already be halfway to forgetting what it was that we just saw.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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