The Good Girl

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Imagine a cozy domestic scene: After a hard day’s work, the husband is watching television with his wife. She likes to de-stress her day by moisturizing her legs, while the husband looks on lovingly. Now imagine his best friend sitting there, invading their privacy. To the husband’s question “I sometime wonder how it is to be a woman,” the friend says, “If I were a woman, I would be a slut,” all the while casting lustful eyes on the wife. Oh, and the husband and his dear friend are completely stoned, besides soiling the couch with their dirty painter-job clothes. Enough to drive the wife crazy, one would think. It does.

Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston) works at the Retail Rodeo, a Wal-Mart look-alike in Texas. It’s a dead-end job, involving many dreary hours convincing customers to purchase make-up. The store is run by a kindly manager, Jack Field (John Caroll Lynch), who likes to memorialize the deaths of former employees by playing music customized to their personalities. The store’s security guard, Corny (Mike White) is a Bible-study fanatic with a face like Hannibal on valium. To add local color, there is a colleague, Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), who provokes indifferent customers by mouthing obscenities at them. She explains to a customer that a cosmetic called "cirque du face" means “circus on the face,” and by the time she is finished with the client, it looks like she meant what she said.

Justine’s only salvation in this hell-hole is another co-worker, Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a boy barely out of his teens who identifies closely with his namesake in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Holden doesn’t have a charming personality or a great physique, but in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is King. Justine is smitten, and the couple are soon renting rooms in the nearest sleazy motel. The unsuspecting husband, Phil Last (John C. Reilly), gives new meaning to the adage “ignorance is bliss,” but his best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) finds out. When Bubba confronts Justine with her infidelity, she discovers that he has his own agenda to fulfill. Meanwhile, Justine realizes that while her beau may have the sex-drive of the best-bred Texan bison, he also has the temperament of a Beverly Hills latch-key kid. Of course, she learns that a fling is no boomerang that she can recall. The movie does not culminate in the all-out tragic denouement that is common to such films, but provides a more nuanced (yet unforgiving) treatment of all the characters and their flaws.

The Good Girl is the latest in the mushrooming my empty suburban life genre: American Beauty, One-Hour Photo, and now The Good Girl depict the American suburban landscape as bereft of emotionally fulfilling lives, peopled with characters who are so fed up with their daily routines that they are ready to go over the deep end. Even though movies in this genre partake of similar views of suburban life, there are important differences in their approaches. At one end is American Beauty, where the story of suburban decay is told through glossy cinematography and dark comedy. At the other end is The Good Girl, where a deliberate attempt is made to keep actors, events and production values as ordinary as possible. The settings are mundane, the actors look normal and act normally, and the story, though dealing with adultery and subterfuge, has nothing novel to offer. The ending comes as no surprise, but as a commonplace event at the end of a staid storyline. The treatment is deliberate, intended to show how ordinary people react to everyday frustrations in their lives.

The Good Girl is like an old bookcase. On the surface, it looks old and the contents seem conventional. On closer observation, however, both the structure and its contents are rich in detail. The plot weaves together issues of infidelity, suburban angst, boyhood frustration, and the complexity of friendships among men. Within each of these areas, the actors deftly introduce quirky characteristics. Justine plays the adulteress but teases with her other qualities too. She quickly tires of her new beau and in a comic-tragic moment, even toys with killing him. Her husband is a gentle slow-witted man who is quick to apologize when he slaps his wife for cuckolding him; then he beats the living daylights out of the suspected adulterer. His best friend is his Man Friday for all occasions, but also casts lustful eyes on his wife for reasons less to do with his libido and more to do with friendship and emotional bonding.

Jennifer Aniston plays against type here and succeeds to a surprising degree. The spoiled vivacious Rachel of Friends is absent, replaced by a commonplace (though beautiful and flawed ) girl with real life frustrations. Tim Blake Nelson (Minority Report, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), as Bubba, portrays small-town mind-sets, sleaze, weak-kneed adoration, and cunning in equal measure. Riding on the strength of these inspired performances, The Good Girl wins the independent movie derby this year.

– Nigam Nuggehalli