Rated R - Running Time: 1:33 - Released 8/7/02

On the eve of the much-publicized final season of the NBC TV show Friends, I must admit that of the show's six actors I think Jennifer Aniston has the most promise for a fulfilling post-Friends career. I have been impressed with her performance in everything I've seen her in (a statement I cannot make for any other Friends cast member), and this film is no different. The Good Girl, written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta (the same creative team behind the critically acclaimed 2000 indie film Chuck & Buck), is another showcase for Aniston's considerable talent as well as another triumph for White and Arteta. Thoughtful, dark, and contemplative, with just a hint of humor, White's story is a study in the pounding tedium of middle-class life and what it does to people, a story of pathetic obsessions taken too far and the denial-masked despair that quietly seeps in to replace the lost dreams of idealistic youth.

Aniston's character is Justine Last, a 30-year-old discount department store clerk in rural Texas who admits that as a child she was full of wonder, but now she views life like a prisoner on death row, "either waiting for execution or planning an escape." But then she meets Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 22-year-old fellow employee and aspiring writer whose real name is Tom Worther, but who patterns himself after Holden Caulfield of The Catcher In The Rye. Justine's husband Phil (John C. Reilly), a house painter who spends all his free time smoking pot with his best friend and painting partner Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), is genial and devoted; in fact, they've been trying to have a baby together. But she can't help being intrigued by Holden, whose dark outlook matches her own. Holden is immediately smitten with Justine, having finally met a woman who "gets" him, who understands his hatred of the world. The two begin a clandestine affair that inspires him greatly but consumes her with guilt and worry. The real trouble starts, however, when Bubba witnesses them meeting at a local hotel and blackmails her in a very unpleasant way. This in turn causes Holden to do something that fills Justine's world with more intrigue than she had any desire for.

While this story sounds simple and pedestrian, it's not the plot so much as the atmosphere and character relationships that matter. Arteta creates an oppressive mediocrity that weighs us down just as it does the people in the story. We are able to relate because we have all gone through periods where feelings of static desperation have caused us to consider making radical life changes without considering the consequences. Aniston and Gyllenhaal are both superb in their characterizations—he is an intelligent young man who could have a bright future, but whose hatred of the world is based on his immaturity and self-centered idealism; she is older and more world-weary, simply wondering where and when it was that life passed her by. But beyond these two, White's story is filled with interesting supporting characters who fill out Justine's world, from her boss (John Carroll Lynch) and co-workers (Deborah Rush, Zooey Deschanel, and writer White), each of which deals with his or her own peculiar issues, to Holden's parents (John Doe, Roxanne Hart), whose cold indifference lends some insight into his stunted emotional outcome.

The end of the film is hopeful, in a melancholy way; it underscores that even in the midst of depression and tragedy, there are some good things in life to be experienced. It is not a movie with a resounding message, but simply a powerful and telling peek into a view of life more familiar than many of us might like to admit. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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