A `Good' role for Aniston

`Friends' actress shines in complicated part

Movie Reviews

August 23, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

(***1/2)

The joke of The Good Girl is that she isn't good at all. Though she'd be the last one to admit this about herself, Justine Last is about as self-centered a person as you'd ever want to imagine, a woman for whom any action is justified, so long as she comes out OK in the end.

But the good that's lacking in the character is more than made up for in the movie itself, an unabashed look at a woman who thinks she's a lot more complicated than she is. As Justine, Jennifer Aniston both builds on and leaves behind her Friends persona (in ways her show-mate Matthew Perry might want to try after the disaster that is Serving Sara), turning in a performance that should launch her into some serious big-screen stardom. Her Justine starts off the movie with our sympathies and seems to continue deserving them, until you stop to think about things for a moment.

That undercutting subtext is the best thing about The Good Girl: What at first seems like yet another movie about a worthy person trying to escape her dead-end life, and the sometimes fateful decisions she makes toward that end, turns out to be a lot more complicated than that.

Justine's a fairly miserable sort, living in a nowhere 'burb and stuck in a nowhere job at the local Retail Rodeo (think a Wal-Mart on life support), hating her life and everything associated with it. That includes her friend, Gwen (Deborah Rush), whose seemingly vacuous optimism gets on Justine's nerves. And that especially includes her husband, Phil (John C. Reilly), a house painter who spends his off-hours watching TV, getting stoned and worrying about his sperm.

At 30, seven years into a marriage that's turned from a dream to a drudgery, Justine's not sure there's something better out there, but she's desperate to find out, so scared is she of "going to the grave with unlived lives coursing through my veins."

Misery loving company and all, Justine finds what would seem her salvation one day in the person of 22-year-old co-worker Tom Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), a college dropout so obsessed with Catcher in the Rye that he's renamed himself Holden, tagged himself a writer (though all he can do is write minor variations on Catcher) and declared himself an unhappy societal outcast.

He looks mad at the world, which attracts Justine, who looks at things pretty much the same way. When they fall into each other's arms, it seems for the most honest of reasons - because they're so alike. But they're not. Tom's a little puppy, infatuated with this older woman who seems cut from the same cloth as he is. And Justine ... Justine thinks she's looking for a new life, but all she's really looking for is a little harmless excitement.

Of course, no affair is ever harmless. Soon, the victims of Justine's recklessness start piling up. But somehow, one of those victims is never Justine.

Aniston never overdoes things as Justine. In a role that could easily have devolved into nothing more than a hangdog face and a consistently downward stare, she calls on so much more. Such a caricature would have quickly turned tiresome, but by leavening her character ever-so-occasionally and giving her room to breathe (if not grow - that's something Justine seems incapable of), Aniston keeps us guessing, keeps attention square on her, so anxious are we to see where she'll head next.

In part, Aniston's trading on her Friends persona; who doesn't want the best for poor Rachel? But Aniston's performance goes beyond simply taking the public perception and engaging in some creative misdirection; she uses that as simply a launching point, and fills in the rest with an honest, nuanced performance that suggests layers the character wants us to believe she has.

The Good Girl is the second film from the team of screenwriter Michael White (who co-stars as a Bible-reading security guard) and director Miguel Arteta, who also were responsible for 2000's Chuck & Buck, another tale of a person trying to find a place in an ill-fitting world. But unlike that earlier film, which turned on an event that seemed way out of character, there's not an insincere or off-point moment here. Like the performance at its center, The Good Girl never ceases to make demands of its audience, and rewards those willing to make the commitment.

It's a deft sleight-of-story Aniston, White and Arteta pull off, giving us a character who seems more than she is, but is really less than she appears.

The Good Girl

Starring Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal

Directed by Miguel Arteta

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rated R (language, sexuality, drinking)

Time 93 minutes

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