The Good Girl is Jennifer Aniston. Not only does she play the title role, but this film sets out to prove the ‘serious’ acting ability of the Hollywood A-lister, who is in almost every scene. Though a 2002 Sundance favourite, it hasn’t quite managed to transfer its critical success to the box-office, but it’s a good film, and the girl done good too.
The trouble arguably lies with the marketing or, ironically, the star casting. How can this be indie territory when the driver at the helm is such a mainstream face? Aniston is talented, a good actor, an Emmy winner, but after 10 years in the role is synonymous with Rachel from Friends (in the way that Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe-isms penetrate her work). It’s her success in this role that got her cast as the titular good girl, but no amount of tying-hair-back-to-denote-working-class detracts from the knowledge of her second self. Her enthusiasm for the role was immense, a 33-day shoot on Thursdays and Fridays when not filming Friends (hats off to the location scout who managed to make California look like Texas). Yet the suggestion that her character, Justine, lives off junk food is absurd when here is a woman with perfect skin. Plus, her emphatic adverbs are far too resonant of the long-running series. This is unfortunate because, if her TV work were unknown, this is a credible performance.
It is quite a surprise to discover that before this apparent star vehicle, the director and writer team, Miguel Arteta and Mike White, were responsible for Chuck & Buck (2000), a quirky indie gem that seems far removed from The Good Girl in subject matter. However, they do share major thematic strands – stifling life in a small town, obsession and the disruptive nature of childlike sexual games – and, moreover, are essentially preoccupied with the same truth – simple human reaction to an imprisoning situation. ‘All the films deal with characters who do not have the tools they need to live a full life.’ (Arteta)
The prison of The Good Girl is Wasteland, Texas, (the name itself depicting its inhabitants’ emotional emptiness), and, more specifically, the Retail Rodeo where Justine is a bored sales clerk. It is clear that her colleagues feel similarly confined – Cheryl (the up-and-coming Zooey Deschanel) derives entertainment from using cosmetics-counter make-up to turn into someone dramatically new, while the security guard (played by the film’s writer White) has fun making an automatic door open and close, yet is not able to leave the building. The confining nature is captured spot-on thanks to the shooting process, which uses underexposure. This technique means that colours appear grainy, so that even the blues and greens of the store workers’ uniforms are drab. This is a place where not even the wind blows change. Justine’s first exchange with her layabout husband says it all: ‘How was your day?’ ‘The same.’
Justine’s last best chance, promoted by the poster tagline, comes in the form of a sexual relationship with anti-social writer Holden, who characterises the youthful, cynical angst of his namesake, the (anti-) heroic outsider of JD Salinger’s classic 1950s text. The film doesn’t try to use this character as a cypher, but instead turns it into a joke. Firstly, the conversation they have when they first meet (‘Whatcha readin’?’ ‘Catcher in the Rye…. I’m named after it.’ ‘What’s your name?’ "Catcher?’); and secondly, the discovery that the name on his badge is self-christened. The wink goes further with the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal who, after his performance in This Is Our Youth on the London stage, has often been described as a modern-day Holden, an actor of incredible pathos whom the director cast because of his ‘ability to be tragic and funny at the same time'(Arteta). Other great casting is indie stalwart John C. Reilly who is now developing a niche for himself as the naïve husband, oblivious to the needs of his wife.
It’s difficult to judge how good the good girl is against The Good Girl. Justine is someone whose behaviour is not good, but whose motives are not bad, a complex inner struggle that Aniston portrays well in her on-screen transformation from girl to woman. In the end, while Holden seems to be living out the childlike fantasy of his literary aspirations, Justine (who has been in the driving seat literally and metaphorically in this relationship, a place she has never sat with her husband) makes decisions about what is safe for the future. She chooses what she knows to be real, just as the opening retrospective line – ‘As a girl, you see the world like a giant candy store’ – laments the loss of choice, rooted in a better understanding of the world around you, as you grow older. But do her decisions sadly reinforce the views that the film purports to critique?
Artera describes his style of direction as ‘an earnest attempt to reach the truth, even if you don’t always reach it’, which is true of this don’t feel-good movie, where no one gets each other, as a whole.