Aniston shows range in 'Good Girl'

Hate your job?

Hate your home life?

photo

Special to the Journal-World

Jennifer Aniston, left, plays an unhappy married woman who has an affair with a younger co-worker (Jake Gyllenhaal) in "The Good Girl"

So does Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston). As a married, 30-year-old clerk at the Retail Rodeo in West Texas, her personal opportunities are epitomized by the vast wasteland that surrounds her. She has a few friends at work, including the irrepressibly perky Gwen (Deborah Rush) and the dour Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), whose habit of making insulting announcements to shoppers over the intercom quickly gets her transferred to cosmetics. But for the most part Justine's days there are unfulfilling.

Then comes along Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a loner kid who hates the ambition-crippling nature of the 9-to-5 workplace as much as she does. He spends his breaks reading "Catcher in the Rye" and showing Justine his writing. Actually his real name is Tom but as he tells her, "It's my slave name. Holden is what I call myself."

Before long they're having an affair.

Justine's home life is reason enough for this path. Her painter husband � house not canvas � Phil (John C. Reilly) seems like a nice enough guy. But his idea of a fun evening (any evening for that matter) is sitting on the couch and smoking pot with his painting partner Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson).

Although Justine has been trying for a while to get pregnant just to relieve the tedium, she begins to wonder if running off with Holden might be a way to escape her domestic prison � or at the very least to commute the sentence.

In "The Good Girl," an unhurried black comedy with resonant dramatic power, Aniston proves capable of carrying a "real" film. The "Friends" star is already underrated as a comedian, and now has a credible foundation to be considered an underrated dramatic actress.









ReviewRating: ***(R)sexual content,language, drug use1 hour, 33 minutesLiberty Hall, 642 Mass.

"Are you going to the grave with unlived lives in your veins," Justine asks at one point. It takes a lot for a superstar of Aniston's stature to sell that line, but she is wholly convincing, from her rural southern accent to her deglamorized appearance.

"The Good Girl" reunites director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, the evil geniuses behind "Chuck & Buck," a remarkably disturbing tale of two childhood friends reunited as adults. The pair's efforts are likely crafted as comedy at the conceptual stage, but when filmed they're something else entirely.

The favorite subject of White � who also penned "Orange County" � is about displaced people battling their surroundings. (The anemic-looking creator also has a role in the film as Corny, the Bible-thumping security guard at Retail Rodeo.) White usually goes beyond the surface veneer of his characters, finding a lurking humanity to those that society might easily dismiss.

He's close to achieving this in "The Good Girl," but there is a slight artifice to his project on this occasion. A few of the performances seem awfully calculated (including his own), particularly those of Gyllenhaal and Nelson. It doesn't help that the former went through nearly the same routine and situation in "Lovely & Amazing" � that time with married, older, retail coworker Catherine Keener as his object of affection.

As written, Gyllenhaal's Holden just seems too brooding, too lost. Turning a major character into a psycho is cinematically an easy way out. (It's a ploy "Chuck & Buck" judiciously avoided.)

And Bubba? The name alone reeks of narrative desperation. Although the couch potato factors into the plot much more importantly than one would initially suspect, there is an ultra-yokel quality to him that borders on cartoonish.

Luckily, the central performance always rings true.

There is much to Justine that is easy to identify with: She's an intelligent person stuck in roles where that is not necessarily a virtue. But some of the decisions she makes during the course of the film seem objectionable and even cruel. White understands that just because a likable person resides at the core of a story, it doesn't automatically make them the hero.

The litmus test for the morality issues that the film delves into can be summed up by the conclusion. Does "The Good Girl" have a happy ending? Depending on the viewer's perspective on life, the final shot can mean jubilant redemption or a return to soul-killing drudgery. Look at the closing expression on Aniston's face for her own answer.

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