In "The Good Girl," Jennifer Aniston plays a Madame Bovary for the Wal-Mart age. She's an adulterous small-town wife named Justine Last who works in a tacky department store and has a disastrous fling with a fellow cashier.
It's a great role for Aniston. With her casually seductive movie-star face and perfect, curvy figure, Justine looks out of place in her scenes -- just as she's supposed to. Justine is a frustrated 30-year-old checkout girl at the Retail Rodeo of Wasteland, Texas. She's a sexy pearl among bland swine in a bleached-out, styleless mid-American cul-de-sac, working in the wrong job in the wrong town, married to the wrong guy (John C. Reilly as pothead house-painter Phil), and eventually mated with the wrong lover as well (Jake Gyllenhaal as writer wannabe Holden Worther).
The movie is a dark comedy about false dreams and lost illusions -- and, thanks to a fine cast and a smart script, it's an effective one. Director Miguel Arteta and writer-actor Mike White, the acidly clever but inwardly tender duo behind "Chuck & Buck" and this movie, make Justine an anti-heroine at the same time they make fun of her and her world. They make Wasteland, Texas, the quintessential town to escape -- except that in this film, the characters seemingly can't.
Justine, ringing up her cash register and seething with frustration, is a Norma Jean Baker who may never became a Marilyn Monroe. She lives in a town riddled with banality and bereft of beauty, a town whose highest purpose might be to set up a David Letterman punch line. The streets are dull and lusterless, shot in desaturated color from plain angles. The homes are joyless and the TV is full of sports or claptrap, seen through a marijuana haze. In the midst of all this anti-romance, Justine's one false step is a doozy. Succumbing to the callow charms of teen checkout guy Holden, she unleashes a string of ludicrous disasters and sin without redemption.
Justine plays Emma Bovary's role -- cheating, suffering and falling for a romantic pipe dream -- but with a far different, more tragi-comic conclusion. Once Justine begins a clandestine affair with Holden, she's off on one of those Coen Brothers toboggan rides to comic hell.
The movie's ironic title, "The Good Girl," suggests Justine's trap: She's neither "good" nor a "girl," but she lives in a world that demands she act like one or pay the price. In a place like "Wasteland," sexual charm like Justine's is the ticket out, but it's a dangerous opening. From the slant of the suburban desert around her, touting family values while crawling with lust underneath, Justine can only be faithful wife or sinful slut -- even though most of Wasteland's male denizens would probably prefer the latter.
Holden, her lover, believes he's a rebel and an artist, but he's only a good-looking screw-up with artistic pretensions. Husband Phil is an impotent, doobie-puffing slob, and his best pal Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) is an indolent doobie-puffing lech. Corny, the Retail Rodeo's born-again security guard (played by writer White, the memorably creepy Buck of "Chuck & Buck"), is a superficially nice but smarmy power-tripper who uses God as a come-on. As for Jack Field, Your Store Manager, he's a heavenly voice with a lousy playlist: When one of his employees, hapless Gwen Jackson (Deborah Rush), dies, he plays "I'll Be Seeing You" over the P.A. system.
There's no way out of this world, because even the escape hatches are fouled. Though I don't think it's any kind of classic, "The Good Girl" sometimes has the feel and inevitability of one. Arteta and White don't really understand small towns, except perhaps as envisioned in movies like "Badlands" or "Fargo," but they do understand the frustrations and hypocrisies that small-town life breeds, and they have a good sense of how moral skeins unravel.
In "Chuck & Buck" they made a comedy out of unleashed obsession and desire. When White's Buck begins pursuing his boyhood buddy Chuck, he gives off a reek of utterly selfish sexuality, as repulsive as it was funny. Buck was an amoral creep, but unlike the lechers in "The Good Girl," he didn't moralize or pose. He just groped. By contrast, when Justine begins her descent, she certainly doesn't intend evil, and she often stops just short of committing it -- but evil begins to follow her like a bloodhound.
Aniston lets us see why this happens. This is one movie where, as in Mike Judge's "Office Space," her carnal image is really well-used. Carnality, in fact, is the engine here, though we rarely feel it. The sex is frantic but low-voltage, and though the movie makes a point of explaining that Holden took his own first name from teenage rebel Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," it never suggests that Justine's moniker might have been inspired by The Marquis de Sade. She's not the best player in the picture. Nelson, Reilly, White and even Zooey Deschanel (as the Retail Rodeo's cynical beauty expert, Cheryl) give more complete performances. Yet the star makes the movie work. Aniston gives "The Good Girl" instant tension, because we know her Justine doesn't belong there. But does anybody else?
There's a shallowness about "The Good Girl" that can't always be excused as an accurate portrayal of a shallow milieu. The movie makes dark fun out of entrapment, loss and small-town banality, about how lust can be mistaken for romance, stupidity for destiny and good for bad. But, in the end, just like Justine, it's not as good as it could have been.
3 stars (out of 4)
"The Good Girl"
Directed by Miguel Arteta; written by Mike White; photographed by Enrique Chediak; edited by Jeff Betancourt; production designed by Daniel Bradford; music by Joey Waronker, Tony Maxwell, James O'Brien; produced by Matthew Greenfield. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, Aug. 16. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: R (sexuality, language and drug use).
Justine Last -- Jennifer Aniston
Holden Worther -- Jake Gyllenhaal
Phil Last -- John C. Reilly
Bubba -- Tim Blake Nelson
Cheryl -- Zooey Deschanel
Jack Field, Your Store Manager -- John Carroll Lynch
Gwen Jackson -- Deborah Rush Corny -- Mike White
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times