The Good Girl (2002)

D: Miguel Arteta
S: Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal

Low key comic melodrama featuring TV star Jennifer Aniston in a self-consciously deglamourised performance as a working class Texan torn between the security of her dull blue collar married life and the excitement of an affair with an angst-ridden teenage co-worker. Working from a screenplay by Mike White, the film attempts to blend trenchant social commentary with lighthearted satire with a touch of the surreal. It is not completely unsuccessful, but relies heavily on its performances even from the point of view of the level of interest people are likely to have in it.

Aniston is very much the centre of attention, and her performance is a good one. It is always difficult to respond to the work of an actor who is so obviously playing against an established persona. Aniston is best known for her 'Jewish Princess' characterisation of Rachel on the long running TV sitcom Friends. Though that character was partly defined by her quest to be taken seriously as a person given her birth into a world of privilege, the actor was never required to engage with the world of workaday drudgery in which her character finds herself here. As the supermarket employee whose housepainter husband (John C. Reilly) smokes pot and rides a pick-up driven by sleazy partner Tim Blake Nelson, Aniston clearly concentrates her physical performance in a way which suggests an experience of routine over many tiring, indistinguishable years. She matches this physical demeanour with a vocal characterisation eerily reminiscent of Brett Butler (though without the sneakily acid-laden comic timing Butler is able to deliver quite naturally).

With this performance at its core, The Good Girl holds together. The film is about a woman facing the possibility of change in a world seemingly bound by the inevitability of routine. Her combination of excitement and pragmatism is narratively intriguing, as are the twists in the plot which heap a combination of guilt and inhibition upon layers of social observation. The film is nothing close to documentary, nor is it particularly truthful on a fundamental level in terms of how it portrays the American working class and the issues ordinary people must address in their workaday lives. This is not the work of Paul Schrader, or even John Sayles, it is essentially a light comedy which tries to keep its context a little more rooted in social realities than the usual mainstream comedy would. This doesn't make it especially profound, but it is different enough to slip into the 'indie' mould is so clearly aspires to.

Apart from Aniston, who manages to maintain a consistency in tone which leans towards drama, the rest of the cast seem to hover on the point of farcical comedy at given moments. There is a Coen Brothers feel to some of it, and with a little more in the way of Barry Sonnenfeldesque visual flamboyance, one could see the film as a distant cousin of Raising Arizona in some ways. The relationship is distant though, and though momentary flights of surrealistic fancy including a bored teenage girl whose announcements over the supermarket PA tend towards the pornographic or a strange sub-plot involving illness caused by fresh fruit, the film invites response less on a more levelheaded plane. Reilly (Boogie Nights) is solid as Aniston's husband, as is Nelson (O Brother ,Where Art Thou?) as his partner. The twist in Nelson's characterisation is a bit of a litmus test for the audience's response to the film, bizarre and weirdly funny as it is though not without is serious undertones. Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) is serviceable enough as the dark-eyed boy whose textbook teenage angst proves such an irresistible attraction to a woman simply looking for an out more than she is looking for anything in particular.

The Good Girl is a film which may surprise many people, but only because of Aniston's strong characterisation of a humdrum character. Notably for a role in which an actor plays against type, she gives a fully rounded, believable performance which seems to stretch her resources yet give a suggestion of concealed depths appropriate to the character. It is a genuinely good piece of acting and deserves the attention the film allows it to have. Whether or not this is reason enough for anyone to see the film is a question which people will have to address for themselves as circumstances permit. If Aniston were not in it, would you bother given what you know of it? There's the rub.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.