The Good Girl Review
If there were doubts about Jennifer Aniston's acting ability, they vanish ten minutes into The Good Girl, a low budget indie drama in which the Friends star is completely convincing as an unhappily married small-town nobody. It's the first film that's tested her as an actress and if you've only seen her doing comedy on TV or wasted in dismal rubbish like Rock Star and The Object Of My Affection, it's going to be a real eye-opener. Unfortunately, while The Good Girl has a lot going for it, the movie is not nearly as convincing as its star.
Aniston plays Justine Last, a sales clerk for a seedy-looking department store. She works the counters all day and comes home more often than not to find her husband Phil (John C Reilly) stoned in front of the TV with his best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). After seven years of marriage, Justine sees her life as a prison sentence. Then she meets Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), an intense fellow clerk in his early twenties who dreams of being a writer. Holden also hates his life and Justine finds a connection with him which leads them into an affair. In the arms of her younger lover, Justine feels alive for the first time in years but also guilty for betraying her lazy but decent husband and afraid of her safe, dull life being torn apart.
Director Miguel Arteta (Chuck And Buck) has surrounded his star with a solid supporting cast. John C Reilly is perfect as the neglectful Phil, Tim Blake Nelson is creepy and funny as his workmate and Jake Gyllenhaal, from Donnie Darko, appears to have cornered the market in playing morose young men who spend too much time in their bedrooms. In smaller roles, John Carroll Lynch and Zooey Deschanel steal scenes as, respectively, the insensitive store manager and a sarcastic checkout girl.
The characters seem real but sadly the story they've been placed in doesn't. One of the giveaways of a second-rate screenplay is when events feel like they're only occurring to drive the plot or make a point and that's painfully true here. Take the scene where Justine is confronted by someone who knows about her affair and given a choice - the decision she makes is absolutely wrong for her character and it's hard to imagine any sane woman would do what she does. Nor do Holden's actions late in the film seem like anything other than a tidy and convenient resolution.
The filmmakers work very hard to make you feel you're watching Real Life, with dressed-down stars, dull photography and grubby locations but life has a messiness and spontaneity that The Good Girl only captures momentarily, in a line of dialogue or a performance. God knows mainstream movies have their faults but there's a tendency to over-rate independent cinema just because it avoids Hollywood cliches. Is that enough? American indie films have developed plenty of cliches of their own. Find one without a sudden and tragic death in it and you should get a prize.
One of the best movies of recent years was You Can Count On Me, another low-budget drama about a small-town woman coping with a dead-end job and exasperating family members. That film managed to be funny, moving and never less than authentic and I urge anyone who appreciates good drama to see it. By comparison, The Good Girl seems as contrived and artificial as any blockbuster.