Produced by Carol Baum, Kirk D’Amico, Shelly Glasser, Matthew Greenfield, Gina Kwon, Philip von Alvensleben.
Starring Jennifer Aniston, Zooey Deschanel, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Carroll Lynch, Tin Blake Nelson, John C. Reilly, Deborah Rush, Mike White.
2002, Fox Searchlight/ UIP, comedy/ drama, R, 93 minutes, 7/10
“A ripple of passion flashing in a pool of indifference, but Aniston triumphs.”
This is an intriguing piece. Neatly avoiding the risks inherent in portraying boredom and indifference by becoming boring and instilling indifference in the audience, The Good Girl is a multi-layered film that maintains our interest and curiosity throughout with some powerful performances, notably by Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, and John C. Reilly, and by some original and truthful twists in the story line.
Justine: Whatcha readin’?
Holden: Catcher in the
Justine: What’s your name?
Holden: (blank pause)
Despite this inauspicious beginning Justine’s interest is tweaked by Holden’s dark, self-contained isolation. He’s a writer and self-avowedly not very social. She artlessly tells him that she saw in his eyes that he hates the world, like her, causing him to latch on to her as though she is his sole reason to live. His parents, he says, don’t ‘get’ him. After a lifetime of not being ‘got’, he adds, she ‘gets’ him and he ‘gets’ her.
As background to this is Justine’s home life. After work, her husband Phil (John C. Reilly) and his co-worker Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) are habitually to be found on the couch, watching TV, with joints and/or beer in hand. Justine, just as habitually, reacts to them with restless irritation. Talking about their fruitless attempts to have a baby, her customary directness becomes even more pointed, telling him marijuana makes men sterile and that he needs to have his sperm checked.
The clandestine relationship between Justine and Holden develops because she is bored and feeling trapped, and Holden is so alienated from the rest of the world that he places all his projected fantasies on her. At 22, Holden is even more juvenile than the literary namesake on whom he models himself – the precocious misfit Holden Caulfield was 16 when he was failing at school and having his nervous breakdown. Gyllenhaal plays him as a more extreme version of the kind of intense young man he has played before in Lovely and Amazing and Donnie Darko, and his intensity rattles Justine’s cage disturbingly. However, Justine sees clearly through the stories he writes. She probably doesn’t need to read Catcher in the Rye to see how derivative and unoriginal he is, while being incapable herself, through practised dullness, of exploring the depths of torment he is feeling.
Some plot developments create some unexpected originality and show how much we may have become conditioned to
There are elements in this film that almost take it into satire or black comedy. In the worse than soulless Retail Rodeo the cinematography and soundtrack capture a vast, brightly lit emptiness filled with gimcrack tawdriness and colourfully boxed disappointment. The wonderfully malicious Cheryl, played by Zooey Deschanel (herself named for another J.D. Salinger character) uses the PA system to slip poisonous words and meaning into the specials announcements without the least expression either in her automatic cadences or on her bored face as she blandly advises female shoppers “to shove Liquid Drain Cleaner up their filthy pipes”. Her efforts at the cosmetic counter making customers over with “Cirque du Face – all the rage with the Frenchies” are savagely creative and all the more vicious for their deadpan delivery. The sudden, bizarre death of one employee and the violent death of another have store manager Jack Field (John Carroll Lynch) making choices of commemorative songs for them over the store PA, which reflect a pervasive shallowness and poverty of soul, not to say bad taste, in equal measures. Store security guard Corny, played by the movie’s screenwriter Mike White, gives a performance of bland niceness laced with acidity as a voyeuristic, bible-study group leader.
What takes the film away from satire are the authenticity of the characterisation, the depth of the acting and the very personal voice-over of Justine all of which disallow the distance and twistedness of true satire. The film is a little too true to be satirical. Justine is essentially straight, a ‘good girl’ by default whose apathy is challenged by the angst-ridden Holden. Her actions are determined by the conflict between her need to be comfortable with her choices and her almost forgotten longing for the ‘candy store’ of her childhood fantasies. Guilt is another factor, but only because it makes her uncomfortable – as uncomfortable and irritated as say, the TV set that produces bursts of wind-affected static. In fact the TV set seems to bother her more than a spot of infidelity until it seems she might be found out. The climax of the film literally comes at a crossroads. Having asked herself “Is this your last best chance? Are you going to your grave with unlived lives in your veins?” she must choose between the known boredom of the Retail Rodeo and the desert: “A beautiful never-ending nothing.”
Her decision has as much to do with which of those possible futures can best be endured, as with the paucity of choices in her world to make such choices meaningful. By the end of the film you may well feel that any ripple caused by Holden in her life has been not so much obliterated as parasitised and subsumed by a heavy, opaque liquid, too indifferent to move.
© Avril Carruthers 9th May 2003
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