THE GOOD GIRL
directed by Miguel Arteta
with Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, and Tim Blake Nelson
opens Aug. 16 at Metro and Uptown
The problem with The Good Girl, like its protagonist, is that it can't decide whether to be good or bad. Beginning with the gentle Texas twang voice-over of 30-year-old Justine (Jennifer Aniston), Girl immediately puts you in mind of film noir. Where is she speaking from? Prison? Death row? The morgue? Is this going to be like The Man Who Wasn't There? Certainly Justine's life is no less boring and unfulfilled than that of Billy Bob Thornton's murderous barber. She labors under the buzzing, soul-crushing fluorescent lights of the Retail Rodeo (a kind of lower-rent, Kmart version of Wal-Mart, if that's possible), hardly the sort of environment liable to produce a hard-boiled killer. Unfortunately, the noir stuff turns out to be a tease, a genre that Girl disappointingly invokes and drops in favor of kitchen-sink realism and low-wattage black comedy.
Instead of Double Indemnity or Blood Simple springing from Girl's familiar triangle setup, Justine's perpetually stoned housepainter husband (John C. Reilly) isn't hateful enough to kill. Her brooding 22-year-old workplace lover (Jake Gyllenhaal) couldn't shoot straight if he wanted to. (He's got his nose buried in Salinger and has anointed himself "Holden" as his nom de guerre.) The two misanthropes get a brief thrill from fucking in the back storeroom, but she feels guilty about it later, reproaching herself as "a hateful girl, a selfish girl, an adulteress, a liar."
Oh, great. That's just what we need at the multiplex—more guilt in our lives. Girl is the last film that the Justines of this world would want to see.
Granted, dangling the idea of escape, then denying that possibility, gives Girl a certain admirable integrity. I spoke to director Miguel Arteta during his recent visit to Seattle and liked his take on the picture. "I think we can relate to somebody who's really fed up," he says of Justine. "All the dreams that she had in high school about life haven't turned out. I think we can relate to that bitterness."
Borrowing a phrase from screenwriter Mike White (who also penned his Chuck & Buck), Arteta calls Girl "a comedic ode to depression." He continues, "The movie is meant to make you wonder about the people who maybe, at first glance, you wouldn't think about—like if you're driving on the highway, and you get off in Texas to go to the discount store to buy something and meet all these characters, not giving a second thought to what kind of quiet desperation they're living."
And how to escape from that desperation? Arteta's answer reflects Girl's bleakness: "In some ways, you have to murder your fantasy life to deal with the depression in your life."
Ouch. That's pretty harsh—but perhaps true. Justine's fantasy of romantic escape is like Holden's fantasy of being a great writer (which, she's smart enough to realize, he's not). Even worse, as their relationship begins to sour, her husband's dim-witted colleague (Tim Blake Nelson) springs a blackmail scheme on her, then pours out his own disillusioned fantasy life. Yet for him, having his dreams dashed is liberating; for her, Justine slowly realizes, Holden is less dream lover than puerile dreamer—another trap, like home, husband, and job. (And what does the Retail Rodeo symbolically convey if not being roped and tied?)
Since Girl doesn't see fit to turn up the volume and color like the Coen brothers do (draining the humanity out their characters but increasing our enjoyment), why not go the other way—to Method-style Kowalski screaming? Nope, nothing doing. Girl defiantly sticks to the very mundaneness of Justine's humdrum routine. Nobody gets particularly worked up about anything; they just kind of mumble their way through their drab gray lives. Even an attempted poisoning and the theft of $15,000 are made to seem paltry and dull.
Girl's psychological insights aren't any more rewarding—nor are they particularly entertaining. In a summer box office brimming with discontented women, Justine looks mousy by comparison. Give us the articulate, bitchy neurotics like Catherine Keener and Julia Roberts in Lovely & Amazing and Full Frontal. Give us the sophisticated sexual discontent of Sigourney Weaver and Bebe Neuwirth in Tadpole. Yet there's nothing wrong with Aniston's performance; when Justine wearily despairs of "unlived lives in your veins," the actress conveys how she lacks any notion of how to realize them.
As for White's ode to depression, I still finally respect his discomforting tendency to itch things raw. It takes a savant of strip-mall anomie to have Girl's doomed lovers meet by the only landmark they know—the Chuck E. Cheese.