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Define 'Good' 

The casting of Anthony Perkins was central among the many great tricks that Alfred Hitchcock pulled on us in Psycho. Perkins had previously played sensitive, sometimes shy romantic leads. Who would ever think of him as the prototype serial slasher? Director Miguel Arteta pulls a similar, though far more muted trick by casting Jennifer Aniston as the focal character in his ironically titled The Good Girl. Who would ever think of the all-American Friends star as a villain? Her role here requires Herculean feats of self-deception, a character who fools us because she so completely fools herself, and Aniston is very much equal to the task. I don't know that this picture will find the requisite audience, but Aniston's seemingly straightforward, deftly slippery performance is the stuff of Oscar nominations.

Written by Mike White (author of the Arteta's creepily directed Chuck and Buck), The Good Girl is the story of Justine Last (Aniston), a cosmetics clerk at a small-town Retail Rodeo. Justine has just turned 30, and she's staring into a future as appetizing as dog food. Eschewing college, she married her dim-witted high school boyfriend Phil (John C. Reilly), a house painter. Home from her dead-end job every night, she eats frozen dinners on TV trays with Phil and his omnipresent best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), watching with disgust as the two men ruin her sofa with paint-smeared clothes and stoke themselves into stupidity with an endless round of beer and marijuana joints. Justine is the kind of woman who has long since fallen out of love with her husband but is nonetheless frustrated that she hasn't been able to get pregnant.

Justine stays with her inert life and joyless marriage because, she thinks, she's a good girl. She's not a churchgoer. She firmly rebuffs the proselytizing of security guard Corny (writer White). But she's adamant that she has her beliefs; she's a moral person. Her marriage may not be good, but it is forever. Unless she has an option, of course. Unless temptation slouches into the Retail Rodeo in the person of a new cashier named Holden Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 22-year-old college dropout living with his parents. Holden has eyes full of pain and a sense of yearning as wide as Kansas. He wants to be a writer, only all his stories end with the main character's suicide. Justine should have better sense than to get involved with this boy, but Justine doesn't have any sense at all. And getting involved with Holden is just the first in a series of bad decisions she makes.

White is an entirely literary writer. He doesn't waste his details. If someone offers Justine a bowl of berries, there's a reason why her refusing them is important. And those berries will resurface to entice other characters as well. Justine and her colleagues Gwen (Deborah Rush) and Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel) spend their days applying makeup to the plain faces of the town's middle-age ladies. But no one is really "made over." No one looks better. Most look worse. And thus White and Arteta establish their central theme: just under the exterior of everyday normality, most people are profoundly selfish. The principles they espouse are ones they live by only so long as living by them is convenient. Fidelity is fine until extramarital sex is too appealing to pass up. Friendship is fine until betrayal is easier. Loyalty is expected of you but not required of me. We give lip service to morality, but narrow self-interest drives everything we do.

In sum, The Good Girl is carefully and commendably well-made. Arteta gets memorable performances from his exceptionally capable cast, and White's script delivers a solid handful of laughs. Many viewers will leave this film feeling unsettled, however, and though I think the filmmakers intend this effect, I don't know that I agree with the philosophy that spawns it. The Good Girl communicates an unrelentingly pessimistic view of human nature. People may pretend they can and may even want to change, the film submits, but they can't. They will always do the selfish thing. In this regard, Phil is perhaps the best of the picture's characters, but only because he has the least ambition and energy. He's less active, so he does less harm.

White and Arteta have every right to this vision, of course, and anyone who has lived long in this world can cite reams of evidence that support their notion that human beings are a pretty sorry lot. But the godless universe they depict where the believers are reduced to caricature and everybody else is either a conniving hypocrite, a self-deceiver or a slug is not a world I want to inhabit. Thus, though I might admire the artistry of The Good Girl, I will always save my strongest praise for a film like last year's Divided We Fall, which peels back the horror of human existence to reveal the stubborn persistence of hope.

click to enlarge Justine (Jennifer Aniston) swaps stories with her younger co-worker Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) in The Good Girl.
  • Justine (Jennifer Aniston) swaps stories with her younger co-worker Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) in The Good Girl.
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