The Good Girl

(Miguel Arteta, USA, 2002)


The miseries and frustrations of ordinary people received quite an airing in films of 2002 ranging from the woeful All or Nothing (2002) to the excellent About Schmidt (2002).

Director Miguel Arteta is not a trend-follower on this turf. His Star Maps (1997) was a small, captivating glimpse into the lives of street teens. Chuck and Buck (2000) inaugurated his collaboration with writer and actor Mike White (The School of Rock, 2003). Arteta’s films focus on difficult, inarticulate relationships and curious moral quandaries.

Justine (Jennifer Aniston) is a wife and worker whose desire to escape her lot seems stirred by the disquieting wind that keeps her awake at night. In the Retail Rodeo where she is employed, an assortment of oddballs find ways of coping with their ennui – through cynicism, as in the case of Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), fundamentalist religion for Corny (White), or the perky optimism exuded by Gwen (Deborah Rush).

Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) catches Justine’s attention. He is a disaffected teen who models his angst on that of Holden Caulfield, and casually comments that he writes "poems, novels, screenplays." Mostly, in fact, he writes turgid suicide fantasies, but a fling with Justine realigns his imagination towards the path of romantic transgression.

Nothing, however, is especially romantic for Justine. Her single act of indiscretion turns into a snowballing catastrophe involving her sterile husband, Phil (John C. Reilly), his feckless best friend, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), and the police.

Like About Schmidt, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and One Hour Photo (2002), The Good Girl revels in wide angles of endless supermarket shelves or bland suburban homes. In one splendid scene, Justine drives to a crossroads and looks between, on one side, the landmarks of her everyday prison, and on the other the future, "a beautiful, never-ending nothing".

With sing-song reflections like these, Justine sounds a little like Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973), and Holden’s self-delusions resemble Martin Sheen’s emulation of James Dean in that same film. Arteta shows us a world in which people’s identities are derived from the blandest of pop culture fads, and their emotions are expressed in the purest kitsch – such as when Jack, the Retail Rodeo boss, offers tribute to a deceased comrade by playing over the store loudspeakers "Who’s Sorry Now?"

But is this just the same sort of brittle superiority evident in All or Nothing? Mercifully, The Good Girl is a more soulful and ambivalent film. Aniston’s situation comedy mannerisms sometimes make light of the story’s themes, but mostly she is right in its bleak groove. And, by the end, we are led to wonder whether everyday life is such a hell as it’s so often cracked up to be, and whether there is any feasible alternative that isn’t just a media-fed pipe dream.

The Good Girl has many droll moments worthy of Aki Kaurismäki – such as when Cheryl, to amuse herself, does a grotesque make-up job which she calls "cirque du face" on a gullible customer – but it never becomes patronising.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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