Dir: Miguel Arteta. US 2001. 93mins.
The Good Girl, Miguel Arteta's third feature, represents a step in the right direction for him as a filmmaker, as well as for his star, Jennifer Aniston, best known so far for her part in the TV series Friends. Centring on a thirtysomething woman who is professionally frustrated as a supermarket employee and emotionally suffocated as a wife, this serio comedy explores the inner feelings of a woman who embarks on a journey of self-realisation that takes her to unexpected places. The film, written by Mike White (who also scripted Arteta's Chuck And Buck and this month's Orange County) juggles well its ever-changing tone, from the earnest and serious to the comic and even farcical. However, the film also suffers from a detached, decidedly male point of view, which is imposed on its heroine. That said, theatrical prospects are excellent for an enjoyable feature that benefits from strong performances by Aniston and the other cast (among them John C Reilly and Tim Blake Nelson) as the radically diverse men who shape her life. Unlike Chuck And Buck and Arteta's Star Maps - which divided critics and failed commercially - with the right handling, The Good Girl could score within the indie milieu and perhaps even go beyond that.
With his third consecutive film to receive its world premiere at Sundance, Arteta is evolving into an interesting filmmaker, whose films are becoming more accessible. However, he still has a long way to go if he is to become an accomplished filmmaker, particularly in the visual aspects of his work: technically speaking, his features are still too static, even shapeless, for their own good.
As a follow-up to Chuck And Buck, The Good Girl exhibits the same quirky and warped worldview, one that's both critical and tolerant of human weaknesses, particularly of men. But what's new is that this is Arteta's first picture about a woman, although the three men in her life are no different in their psychological make-up and deficiencies from those in his previous films.
Aniston plays Justine, a young woman stuck in an ordinary sales job at a boring discount store, Retail Rodeo. She has also been unhappily married for seven years to Phil (Reilly), a lazy pothead who works as a house painter and spends most of his leisure watching TV with his buddy Bubba (Nelson). A product of middle-American brainwashing, Justine is a victim of a male-dominated culture that has told her to conform to the norms at all costs.
It was not always this way: as Justine says in the voice-overs that accompany the film, "as a girl, you see the world like a giant candy store," but then, there reaches a point when "you want to run away, scream and cry." For years, Justine has wanted to start a family, but so far, she and Phil have been unable to conceive. There are strong reasons to believe that Phil is sterile.
Things change, however, when Justine notices a new young employee at the store called Holden (Gyllenhaal), named after the hero of JD Salinger's famous novel, Catcher In The Rye. Like that celebrated protagonist, Holden is a passionate, creative rebel, full of angst and utterly dissatisfied and disgusted with anything mundane. Justine and Holden go on a date and soon become lovers and soul-mates.
As if leading a double life is not enough, Justine also finds herself the object of desire - and blackmail - from Bubba, who has always perceived her as the ideal wife. That all three men are outsiders and problematic goes without saying; that no relationship is really fulfilling also becomes obvious when Holden turns obsessive and suicidal.
For a while, Arteta is able to variegate the proceedings by alternating sombre episodes with farcical and absurdist ones. But his intention of telling a simultaneously heart-wrenching and humorous tale is not always successful. Some scenes are extremely static and broad in the manner of a TV sitcom, such as the routine evenings that Justine spends with Phil and Bubba, without having much to say to either. Moreover, it's never clear what exactly has kept Justine's marriage alive for so many years, or what attracted her to Phil in the first place.
Arteta has described The Good Girl as "a comic ode to depression," a challenge that his film doesn't always meet. Nor is he effective in portraying stifling monotony in an interesting, let alone humorous, way. His tendency to turn every film has directed into pathos, no matter what the central situation or characters, also doesn't help. This was most evident in Star Maps, about a merciless patriarch who pimps his own son, but there are traces of cheap sentimentalism in this new picture as well.
It's usually very difficult for a male writer or director to illuminate the inner workings of a woman's psyche and soul, a task that was splendidly met by Victor Nunez in his masterpiece, Ruby In Paradise. By contrast, The Good Girl is not only marked by an outside male perspective, but also fails to convince in the choice that Justine makes at the end of her journey, one which is likely to upset feminist audiences. At the end of the yarn, Arteta wants audiences to ask whether Justine is a good girl, but the more relevant issue is surely what lessons - if any - Justine has learnt as a result of her affairs with three undeserving males.
Prod cos : Flan De Coco Films
Int'l sales: Myriad Picturea
Exec prods: Kirk D'Amico, Philip von Alvensleben, Carol Baum
Prod: Matthew Greenfield
Scr: Mike White
Cinematographer: Enrique Chediak
Prod des: Daniel Bradford
Ed: Jeff Betancourt
Main cast: Jennifer Aniston, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tim Blake Nelson