- The Washington Times - Friday, August 16, 2002

Suspicious types can be assured that "The Good Girl" is one of those treacherously ironic titles in the spirit of "Your Friends & Neighbors" (1998) or "American Beauty" (1999).

Now that Neil LaBute, the once lewd and misanthropic writer-director of "Your Friends," has turned to a better class of material with A.S. Byatt's "Possession," someone needed to keep the lowlife flame burning. The torch has been hefted by screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta, previously associated in "Chuck and Buck," which also showcased Mr. White as a wistfully degenerate case of arrested development.

He has a more amusing role in "The Good Girl" as the creepy security guard at a Texas discount store called Retail Rodeo, which also employs Jennifer Aniston as the woebegone title character.

Justine to her intimates, this adultery-prone "good girl" clerks at the cosmetics counter and endures a life of lower-middle-class despondency with an oblivious mate named Phil (John C. Reilly), a house painter who seems to have more of a soul mate in his moronic sidekick, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson).

The simmering desperation of Justine's lot, confided to us through melancholy first-person narration, results in an acutely misbegotten affair with a kid clerk who calls himself Holden, in homage to J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, and harbors dreadful writing aspirations.

The worst scenes in the script escort us to the boy's home, where a set of silent American Gothic parents also reside. These petrified caricatures illustrate the filmmakers' condescension at its most naked. Their contempt for the bogus Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) also defies seriocomic concealment. He's a suicidal time bomb, and the only open question is whether Justine will be close enough to suffer irreparable collateral damage.

The filmmakers seem punitive enough by insisting that Miss Aniston spend the entire movie in a hair shirt of quiet desperation. The film is alternately mocking and soporific in its approach to characters with supposedly stunted, dead-end lives, and it's difficult to envision "The Good Girl" as anyone's idea of a good or profoundly edifying time. The idea of feeling sorry for the hapless Justine is never very fetching.

It's very tempting to resist the idea that Justine is the protagonist. Following Phil and Bubba as a dumb-and-dumber house-painting team looks more promising. So does sticking close to Zooey Deschanel as a minor character named Cheryl, a youngster who likes to get sarcastic over the Retail Rodeo public-address system.

Evidently, Mr. Arteta and Mr. White failed to anticipate the seasonal vogue for "tadpoling," because trifling with a young lover does nothing to empower or reinvigorate Miss Aniston's character.

If Justine had realized that her infidelity might have a blithe and fashionable dimension in the world of movies and journalism, she might have set her sights on a happy-go-lucky dalliance. Exit Holden and bring on the boys from "American Pie" or "National Lampoon's Animal House."


*1/2

TITLE: "The Good Girl"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence; allusions to drug use; sustained morbid and despondent undercurrents)

CREDITS: Directed by Miguel Arteta. Written by Mike White.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes


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