DVD Review: The Good Girl
Dir. Miguel Arteta
Jennifer Aniston, Mike White, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal
The Good Girl of the title - and a bitter title it is - is Justine (Jennifer Aniston, playing against type), a 30-year-old cashier who's stuck in a meaningless existence working at Retail Rodeo, a K-Mart/Wal-Mart type store, and living with her stoner husband Phil (John C. Reilly, giving a better sad-sack husband performance here than he did in Chicago). Director Miguel Arteta films in such a way as to pale every outdoor scene, as if to emphasise the blandness of it all, while the flourescent-lit colour scheme of Retail Rodeo shows that the indoors offers little respite.
That general sense of suburban ennui leads Justine into the arms of fellow cashier Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose seemingly poetic soul is mixed with a sense that his personality is, shall we say, not quite all hinged. Holden gets his self-bestowed monicker from The Catcher in the Rye's protagonist, and that darkness speaks to something in Justine, leading to a series of assignations in motels. Indeed, the film is peppered with various characters' quest for something more - passion, religion - from their life or, conversely, the quelling of that quest into cynicism (Zooey Deschanel as Justine's hilariously deadpan colleague Cheryl) or simly drug-induced retreat (Phil, plus his buddy Bubba, played by Tim Blake Nelson).
The Good Girl is yet another collaboration between Arteta and writer Mike White, following cult favourite Chuck and Buck, and the same sense of dark humour that pervaded that film finds its way here. There are times when the film overplays the "suburban life is destructive to the soul" theme, but this is made believable in the hands of Aniston, who conveys quite clearly the lack of choices of Justine's world. Although trapped in a life that's far from ideal, Justine commonly chooses the path of least resistance - sleeping with Bubba, for instance, in order to prevent Bubba telling Phil about her affair with Holden - and we're not quite sure what to root for: the slow death of the continuing marriage, or the escape with a lover whose immaturity and angst makes him borderline psychotic?
The film's ending, thus, in its apparent happiness hiding an unhappy veneer and in its surrender to the ordinary life, is both the counterpart to and the antithesis of the ending of The Graduate, that other fine commentary on suburban life (the strains of misogyny that I read in American Beauty detract from that film for me). The quest for meaning and happiness in the world of The Good Girl often leads to unintended repercurssions, and that is the heart of the tragedy of this comedy: either one is condemned to endless dreariness, or one faces the harsh consequences of trying to find happiness.