September 4, 2002 
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Jennifer Aniston's career-defining role
In The Good Girl, a grim satire is born out of inertia

Jeet Thayil

For me, the big puzzle in The Good Girl was its title.

Jennifer Aniston in the role of Justine Last, a disaffected salesgirl in an East Texas store, is anything but good. She cheats on her husband with a younger man; when she tires of her lover, she tries to poison him with blackberries; on second thought, she tries to send him to an asylum; finally, she informs the police where he will be hiding and puts a final tragedy into motion.

She cuckolds her husband with his best friend; she accuses her husband of infertility, makes him get a sperm test, then lies to him about the results; when a friend is sick, she makes her walk to the hospital rather than be late for a tryst; and she is in a motel having sex when her friend dies.

If that is a portrait of a good girl, I am a good man. Perhaps that is the point. Justine is not intentionally bad. She is bored and frustrated, and in the skewed morality of modern America, that is reason enough to do just about anything. Her affair with the misguided 22-year-old Tom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is born out of pity rather than desire.

When her husband asks her not to tell him that their baby is another man's, she acquiesces. She lies to him and tells him the child is his. Of course, at that point, the child could be any one of three men she is sleeping with. So the title, then, is ironic, or many-layered at least. Justine is only partly good. But who is not?

She lives in a state of suspended animation, though animation may be the wrong word. Her days blur into each other. Though she has nothing in particular to be unhappy about, she is a prisoner all the same. Her cellblock is the Retail Rodeo, a down-market version of K-Mart (if such a thing were possible), where she works. Zooey Deschamel, who plays her coworker Cheryl, is a reflection of the many things wrong with Justine's job and life.

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Cheryl is openly disaffected. She is fond of adding her own lines to the store's script, to the oblivion, or indifference, of the customers. She sells a face cream by extolling the fact that it will repel any substance that may drip down the customer's face, even urine. Cheryl's rage is acted out more than Justine's, but it is rage nonetheless.

Such is the level of ennui at the Retail Rodeo that even death is rendered absurd. When store employees pass away, the manager plays an appropriate country Western tune --- it is as much a tribute as anything else. When Tom, or Holden as he calls himself, a new employee and would-be writer, enters this loaded equation, it is only a matter of time before something happens. Tom reads J D Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye, in-between customers, and writes self-conscious stories about a boy who nobody 'gets'.

To Justine's credit, she is something of a literary critic, and perhaps not as simple as she seems. She catches on quick enough that Tom's genius may lie elsewhere than in literature. And as soon as she figures him out, she is on her way out of the picture. Jennifer Aniston [left] in The Good Girl

The Good Girl is an unlikely black comedy with a fine performance by Jennifer Aniston. As Justine, Aniston has dyed her hair and gotten rid of her sitcom perkiness for this career-defining role. Is it a coincidence that Justine is named after the Marquis de Sade's masochistic heroine whose attempts at virtue land her into moments of serial depravity? I would like to think not. The humour is relentless and unexpected.

Director Miquel Arteta and writer Mike White, previously responsible for Chuck & Buck, appear to have become adept at fashioning grim satire out of inertia and meaninglessness.

White plays a security guard at Retail Rodeo. White's character efficiently evokes a Bible-thumper whose attempts at bringing Justine and her husband Phil (John C Reilly) into his Bible study class must be balanced with his Peeping Tom tendencies. Phil, a pot-smoking house painter, and Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), his best friend, are the sort of stoned southern-fried dudes you may have met, as are many of the characters in The Good Girl. What is interesting about the film is where it takes these near-stereotypes: somewhere uncharted.

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