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With: Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, Zooey Deschanel, Deborah Rush, Mike White, John Carroll Lynch, John Doe, Roxanne Hart
Written by: Mike White
Directed by: Miguel Arteta
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, some language and drug content
Running Time: 93
Date: 01/12/2002

The Good Girl (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's bad enough when actors find themselves labeled as "comedians" and suddenly become ineligible for awards and accolades. In this world, you have to be a "serious" actor to win awards. But when you're both a comedian and a TV star, then you pretty much have to wait until you're 70 or 80 to get any respect, even if you can't get any work at that point.

Jennifer Aniston, star of "Friends," decided to take the reins now and prove to the world she had the stuff to not only be a serious actress, but also worthy of big screen movies. Not surprisingly, given her excellent turn in last year's Rock Star, she pulls it off with room to spare in The Good Girl, which opens today at the Embarcadero.

In fact, she's so good, she manages to overcome the occasional nuggets of preciousness and self-consciousness in the story.

Aniston plays Justine Last (a telling and slightly obvious name), who works in a "Retail Rodeo" market and comes home to a lazy house painter husband, Phil (John C. Reilly). Phil spends a lot of time on the couch wearing paint-smeared clothes and smoking pot with his best pal Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson).

At work, Justine puts up with overbearing, depressing and cynical co-workers Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), who uses the store's PA system to make snide remarks, and Gwen (Deborah Rush), who teaches Justine how to do bad makeovers at the makeup counter.

At the store she finds the something different she's been looking for in the form of Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a withdrawn fellow about 10 years her junior. Both feeling lost, the two bond over their mutual boredom and begin an illicit affair in a hotel room, eventually becoming brave and moving into the store's stock room.

A recovering alcohol user and an amateur short story writer, Holden dreams of shaking the dust off his heels, hitting the road and taking Justine with him. Justine isn't sure how much she'd leave behind.

Meanhwhile, she and Phil are trying to have a baby, adding complications to the plot, which winds up in a cleverly nasty tangle.

Though the film's tone is hazy, and it's filled with ennui, it has some excruciatingly truthful moments, thanks to writer Mike White (who also stars as Justine's Bible-thumping co-worker) and director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, Chuck & Buck).

In one scene, Justine is charged with dropping Gwen, who's consumed some tainted berries, off at the hospital. Afraid of missing an appointment with Holden, Justine leaves her colleague at the front door. The film plays the scene for laughs, but later developments, and some bad timing, turn it into a tragedy.

In the end, that's The Good Girl's major strength -- the fact that Justine has to make choices, and sometimes she chooses wrong. Initially, she seems vaguely aware that she's miserable and wants something else, but the choices she's asked to make during the course of the film don't offer anything better. Yet each demands an answer.

Aniston scrubs off all traces of perky Rachel and weighs herself down with a vacant heaviness that seems to come from years of sadness and boredom. Her smile muscles have atrophied and her eyes betray a combination of a blank stare and an indistinct wandering. Even her teasing sex appeal all but disappears under the layers of glumness.

The ups and downs in the plot do not travel as smoothly as, say, Monster's Ball, a similar movie set in a similar locale. Here, the filmmakers are too self-consciously aware of life's deep meanings. Yet the movie's moments of pain and truth distinguish themselves with beautiful clarity, and Aniston is right there to devour them and make them her own.

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