With The Good Girl it’s safe to say that Jennifer Anniston has arrived (ironically, in the same week that ought to send Friends co-star Matthew Perry back to the small screen). Anniston has come a long way from that TV stint, her early days as the star of Leprechaun, and her thankless role in the tepid Rock Star.
The Good Girl — from the writer-director team of Mike White (who also plays a supporting role) and Miguel Arteta of Chuck and Buck fame — is an aggressively quirky look at the strange complexities of the lives of “average” folks in a small Texas town. Of course, like most “average” folks, these people are anything but average. Anniston plays the aptly named Justine Last, a bored worker in the cosmetic department of Retail Rodeo (think bargain basement Wal-Mart). Her life is quickly going nowhere.
At work, she receives non-stop advice from her health food nut co-worker, Gwen, who never tires of commenting on her own “youthful” appearance (“I’m ten years older than you,” she crows, despite the fact that she looks a lot more than ten years older than Justine) and her vegetarian diet. At home, she’s faced with her invariably stoned house-painter husband, Phil (John C. Reilly), who is much more interested in the communal experience of watching TV with his joined-at-the-hip buddy, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), than he is in dealing with Justine.
Into her drab existence comes Holden Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), a moody, brooding young man who thinks he’s a writer and has the attitude to prove it. She drifts into an affair with Holden, despite the fact that she quickly learns that there’s more artifice than art to the young man — his adopted name lifted from the “put upon by society” character from Catcher in the Rye. He lives at home with his dysfunctional TV watching parents, drinks to excess, and turns out lamely recurrent stories of a young man “put upon by society.”
Like the characters, nothing here is as simple as it appears. The self-deluded Gwen meets an untimely demise due to her supposedly healthy diet. Bubba discovers the relationship between Justine and Holden and blackmails her into having sex with him as the closest way he can ever bring himself to consummating his relationship with Phil. Justine finds herself pregnant at the exact moment that it’s revealed that Phil is sterile. The further she gets into her relationship with Holden, the more Justine realizes that the young man is seriously disturbed and completely living in his own fantasy.
In other words, The Good Girl, is a lot like life. The delight of the film lies in the quirks of its characters and the way in which they fight off the boredom of their existence in various creative ways. The most obvious — and bizarre — of the characters is Retail Rodeo’s spokesperson, Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), who takes delight in phrasing her announcements of store specials in ever increasingly insulting double-entendres. When her outrageousness becomes too obvious, she finds herself moved into cosmetics with Justine, where she quickly begins putting theatrically overstated make-ups on elderly women, explaining it away as “Cirque de Face” and claiming that it’s the rage in France. Security guard Corny (Mike White) spends all of his time recruiting people for his Bible study group. (“I like to have my evenings to myself,” Justine tells him. “Well, maybe you’ll have your evenings to yourself in eternal damnation, too,” he counters.)
In the end, The Good Girl is about the way we all delude ourselves into believing those things we need to believe in order to get by — and how we’ll generally accept what we have as what we want, whether or not that’s really the case. Rich and deeply packed with detail, the film might be a little too uncomfortable for its own good — or is it just me, clinging to my own illusions? That’s just the sort of thing that this funny and disturbing film wants you to think … it usually succeeds.