It's her last best chance…is she going to take it?
What does it mean to be good? Does it always reflect kindness and consideration? Doing what you are told? Being mannered and well behaved? Can't someone be good, both to themselves and the world around them, by being true to their own identity and ideals, no matter what the consequences? Does being good always come at the expense of one's dreams and desires? For the workers trapped in the Wal-Mart style prison of a small town Texas retail store, being good means being dead, emotionally and spiritually. It means endless hours of hollow toil for a less than filling slice of the American Dream Whip pie and a life most ordinary. But just below the surface of the mundane and monotonous is another kind of integrity, one based in humanity and freedom. Someone once said that the ultimate act of the righteous man is to find himself, and his place, in the universe. For Justine Last, her family, friends, and co-workers a sort of cosmic pre-determination has placed them all in the middle of nothing with the prospect of even less. But when the tantalizing excitement of unconventionality and a spirit of passionate (if flawed) personal truthfulness infiltrate her life in the personage of troubled new employee Holden, our ingénue of ennui faces a crossroads. Will she take the road never traveled (but always contemplated) or stay deep in the heart of tedium and remain, always, The Good Girl?
Facts of the Case
Justine Last works at the Retail Rodeo as a "makeup consultant," the kind of dollar store drone who slaps pancake makeup on the bloated faces of fishwives and sells the styleless suckers glamour by the gallon. At thirty, her life is in a terrifying, depressing stasis. She is married to Phil, a pothead lummox who, along with his creepy best friend Bubba, paints houses for a living. At her job she is surrounded by stifling shadows, individuals existing but barely registering their faded mark upon the world. There's Gwen, convinced that her strict vegetarian diet will keep her healthy and happy. There's Corny, the security guard, whose stalwart religious convictions are as ludicrous as his nickname. And let's not forget Cheryl, a kind of Goth gal gone to hayseed, sprinkling her daily store special updates with off-color and downright hateful attacks on the customers.
Into this pool of emotional poverty steps Holden Worther, a moody 22-year-old writer who bases his attitude, his philosophy, and even his name (his given moniker is Tom) on J.D. Salinger's famed Catcher in the Rye hero. Except there is a very sour, very morose and desperate essence in his interpretation. Justine is struck by his unconventional demeanor and his loathing of small town Texas life. They begin a fragile friendship that blossoms into a liberating series of sexual liaisons, two lost souls finding purpose and pleasure in each other's flesh. All seems exciting and adventurous until the real, dull world starts creeping back in. A co-worker takes ill and Bubba seems to know more about Justine's extramarital activity than he should. "Teeny," her husband's "good girl" resorts to lying and manipulation in order to continue on with her precious Holden moments and their physical escape.
Soon, Justine's once static life starts to grow wildly out of control. Holden presses her to leave, to take up with him and hit the open road. There is a deep wanderlust crawling within her heart, but Justine also knows that this lost highway of abandon could just as easily lead to nowhere. And her once sensitive sexual soulmate is becoming unbalanced and possessive. Like the invisible prison of her marriage and job, Holden's newfound urgency (and longtime drinking problem) becomes a new obstruction to happiness. When he decides that the only way out is through a frantic criminal act, Justine must choose. Will she run away from her husband and her humdrum existence for the exciting, yet decidedly unbalanced Holden, or will she remain true to her life and stay a proper person, a good girl?
Life is not fair. Or at least it never seems to be. We are all destined to fall inches (or in some cases, interstellar light years) short of our goals, only to see our dreams lived out by others less deserving. It's hard to comprehend, sometimes, why life is so hard and why so many of those around us seem nonplused by it. They go to work, feed their kids, and live their quietly desperate and dispassionate existences merely going through the preset motions, moving from paycheck to private hell in a never-ending march of sham success and shattered hopes. The characters in The Good Girl understand this concept all too well. Everyday is an arid, overcast series of stagnant scenes from life as endless tedium and the hot winds of change that blow through the small town and their even smaller inner world seem destined to modify nothing but the television signal. As they stock and suggestively sell to the browser and bilious alike, the complete injustice of the cradle to the grave washes over them in bitter, acidic torrents of inertia. Like David Lynch's comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World, these are people so completely jilted by the lack of universal due process that they become statues, immobile to the passing of time and devoid of even the basic skills to cope or complain.
Into their dull days arrives a stark contrast, the polarizing opposite of everything they maintain immobility for. Holden Worther is a mystery, a misguided fool looking for meaning in the most inappropriate of places and patterns. Modeling his world view and self worth on the passages of Salinger's guidebook for the social outcast, this Holden does not want to play protector of the little children so much as he longs to devour all their innocent, vital spirit, sucking their very life essence like an immature, emotional vampire. He is a deranged creature, not the protective catcher in the flowing fields of rye. As with most individuals obsessed with Caufield's dark descent into the core of his personal torment, Holden Worther sees life through a mask of disengagement and anger that results in odd habits and antisocial/personal behavior. He gives off a serial killer in transition vibe, and yet all this is wildly attractive to the somber Justine Last. Anything would be better than living with a swine spouse who spends his days inhaling paint fumes and his nights enveloped in a cloud of marijuana smoke. Holden represents danger, the lure of the forbidden and the freedom of personal expression. Even though he himself is a trap, a needy near infant craving the motherly love he could not find at home, Justine seems fine with this, if only because it breaks up the boredom of her day.
There are clichés in The Good Girl that crash into one another, intertwining and turning what could have been a formulaic look at breaking away from small town sameness into an exceptional film about what it means, at the core, to be good. On the one hand is the standard "be careful what you wish for," since Justine's desire for change lands her in the middle of Holden's warped world of interpersonal chaos and social alienation. This is what she's always wanted, or at least what she thinks she's wanted. For a moment, either in her mind or in a seedy motel bed, he seems to be the answer. Then a rival notion of "sacrificing others for the sake of self" rears its troublesome implications. True, Justine is filled with disappointment and emptiness, but after indulging in the liberation of secret sexuality and adultery, the life bill that comes due is complicated and confusing. Before, her path was an endless series of internal pains, emotional stagnation brought on by her own hopelessness. Now, her actions reverberate outward, touching and tormenting the lives of others, bringing along its portions of public and private agony. The Good Girl is a movie that asks us to examine whether being good to yourself or to others makes you inherently virtuous. Or does cheating either or both undermine the very notion of decency.
Credit writer/actor Mike White and director Miguel Arteta (the team behind Chuck and Buck) for populating their skewed, deeply thoughtful vision with wonderful dialogue, inventive ideas, and perfectly sketched out characters. Within the first few minutes and in evenhanded, broad strokes, we learn everything we need to know about the people and the place we are in. Time stands still, the environment a vacuum. Hurtling deeper and deeper into this void are the employees of the Retail Rodeo, each lost in their own sphere of sorrow and delusion. White and Arteta never play cheap with these individuals. They move them to the brink of caricature, only to draw them back with a finely observed line or directing moment. They also have an intelligent, almost genius view of sex and passion as the reliever and creator of torment. In most May to December romance stories, there is a standard undercurrent of rebirth, of adolescent to adult and aged to youthful. In The Good Girl, however, illicit romance dooms the characters, bringing them closer to death and destruction than ever before and cementing their maturity—or lack thereof—permanently. In tiny moments and repeated motifs, the filmmakers work to maintain the aura of sadness and self denial, hoping to show that life is indeed what you make it, be it languid and stifling or filled with unchecked passion and difficult decisions.
This is a near perfect film, a realized set of denizens in a universally understandable place that reflects back to us, as an audience, our own doubts and dilemmas. It's too bad that there are a couple of trivial flaws that keep it from skyrocketing into the emotional and cinematic stratosphere. Aside from its lead, the ensemble cast is exceptional. John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Minority Report) mix their stoner mumblings with enough hidden heart and head to make their latter lucid emergence from the cloud of ganja seem completely believable. They are not just addicted to pot, it's the ritualistic capper to a long day's labor with a paint roller in the hot Western sun. The employees of the Retail Rodeo are also fully rendered. Zooey Dechanel's Cheryl, specifically, may be a maniac manic depressive with her vulgar asides and snide hatred, but she also exudes hidden warmth, a desire to connect even if it's on her own, twisted level. But as Holden, Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Bubble Boy) shows a very real, very raw intensity, one that moves beyond the loner archetype he has been handed and into the realm of the truly needy. His disconnected character is still all emotion, looking for someone to "get" him, if only to supply the continuous source of psychosis feeding life force he so desperately craves. Justine's flaw is that she does understand. With that inroad, he's poised to drain her completely and Gyllenhaal manifests all of this exceptionally well.
Jennifer Aniston, on the other hand, represents one of the film's two minor flaws. Not that she is bad. Far from it. Her performance is subtle and sweet, using her demure looks and slight stature to epitomize who Justine is. But as a viewer, it's hard not to feel slightly uneasy with her performance. Her tone seems a little off, as if she is not completely in tune with what the filmmakers wanted to accomplish or say. One can't help but envision another "star" wrapping their acting chops around the role of Justine and transforming it into a complicated, tragi-comic diva, cranking up the melodrama without undermining the movie's vision. But here, Aniston comes across as a perfectly miserable, real life Texas retail store worker only, which is in essence the role she's been given to play. And for that, she deserves credit for distancing herself from the omnipresent perky quirk of her Rachel/Friends persona. But her Justine grounds the movie too much, keeping it an everyday slice of life when it could become a work of unbridled operatic brilliance. Part of the blame must also be born by director Arteta. He wants to create a Coens' world where the mundane meets the stylized to form a higher hybrid of cinematic joy. But aside from a Lynchian obsessions with wind blowing through the trees (these shots, while haunting, fail to resonate with the action onscreen), he does not have the visual flair or eccentricity to create the twisted universe of, say Raising Arizona or Wild at Heart. Like Aniston, he too is making a pragmatic day in the life of the dull and hopeless. And occasionally, the tedium oppresses the film's message and meaning.
And yet, this does not distract from the film. In reality it adds another layer, one hinted at by the script (and confirmed by White in his commentary track). Because she is so real and down to earth, Aniston's version of Justine can equally be seen as a manipulative, self-centered bitch looking to use and abuse anyone she can for the sake of her own soul and enjoyment. She is neither good, nor naïve and innocent. She loves her husband, but purposely treats him very badly. She blames everything on him, disgusted by his filthy ways and drug use, even going so far as to blame him for their inability to conceive a child. At work, she barely functions. But it's more by choice than by circumstances. As all around her try to make the best with what they have been given, Justine merely wants what situation and her own limitations cannot provide. She's not exceptional or special and yet there is a selfish desire to have everything revolve around her and her needs. She's a prima donna without the substance to support her egotism. And even when it seems that Holden has hooked into her, reducing her to merely a part in his grand scheme, we can see (via Aniston's low key performance) that there is as much using going on from Justine's vantage point as his. As long as her wishes are fulfilled and her limits respected, she is a good girl. But when they are not, she is coldly calculating.
Inconsequential issues aside, The Good Girl is a fascinating and ultimately satisfying movie. It is well-written and conceived, with exceptional acting and detailed ideals. The plot is organic, moving effortlessly from convolution to confrontation without resorting to tricks or tacked on trappings. As with many small, independent films, it will probably be overlooked by the majority of the movie watching and DVD renting/buying public. And that's unfortunate, since at its heart is a wonderful tale of goodness in suspension, of decency and honesty tested and rejected for the sake of individuality and happiness. It will and should resound with many. But 20th Century Fox doesn't help matters much, offering a DVD presentation that has a few problems. First, this is a flip disc with a pointless full screen version included for those destined to remain behind the Super 8 ball when it comes to original aspect ratio. Instead of opening the matte, the 1.33:1 framing destroys the compositions that director Arteta uses to suggest isolation and desolation. But the widescreen 1.85:1 transfer is far from perfect. It's fuzzy and soft, with no deep color. This may have been the intent of the filmmaker, but then Fox adds insult to imagery by allowing the transfer to flare in several places during the Retail Rodeo interiors. It's barely noticeable, but exists (especially in the deleted scenes) and exemplifies the less than successful mastering job done here.
As for the sound, we are offered a 5.1 surround track that utilizes very few of the channels. As this is a talky film with many dialogue scenes, it's hard to imagine there being a better way to make the movie more immersive. But when the back channels and subwoofer are under or hardly utilized, the entire point of a 5.1 track seems undermined. Fox attempts to make up for the lack of compelling audio and visual with extras. There is no trailer or cast/crew bios, but we do get two commentary tracks. Jennifer Aniston gives it the old ten minute try as she offers that most badly mislabeled concept in the constantly evolving state of DVD: the "scene specific" commentary. In this case, it should be called the micro-managed moment specific narrative track. Revolving around thirteen sound bites recorded for the package, Aniston offers very little in the way of insight, since she offers very little in the way of words, period. Some segments are mere seconds long, while others offer huge gaps, followed by obvious, slight observations. Current husband Brad Pitt is known for adding levity and insight into his work when included on a bonus audio track; too bad he couldn't have passed on a few tips to wifey when she sat down to discuss what will probably be her big screen breakout performance.
Much better, but equally frustrating, is the second commentary track (full length, this time) from writer White and director Arteta. Both sound similarly bored in presenting their minimal, sparse take on the film, its actors, and the overall themes. Occasionally they offer minor bits of interest (the film was shot in 33 days in a empty storefront converted into a Retail Rodeo set), but more times than not all we are privy to are random outbursts of either obvious clarifications ("it was hard for the actors to cry the whole day") or self-congratulatory backslapping ("Good job Mike…Good job Miguel"). A film with as complicated a premise as The Good Girl would benefit greatly from a more insightful, less indulgent pair of commentary tracks. Also included are a series of deleted scenes, with and without commentary, that truly add nothing to the movie. In most cases, the removal of the excess material was wise, since in context it must have undermined several of the crucial moments in the film. There is also a brief outtakes, or "gag" reel, that provides shots of famous people flubbing their lines and laughing uncontrollably. Irritatingly, in order to experience all the extras, one needs to flip the disc over and then back again. This design decision seems indicative of Fox's desire to undersell a minor gem of a film. Many may think that commentaries and deleted material speak for themselves as obvious and welcome package inclusions. But it's quality, not quantity, that counts, and each of the extras on The Good Girl DVD sells the movie, and its message, short.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A movie like The Good Girl has pleasant intentions plastered all over its self-important tone. This is a film that treats depression like a head cold, adultery like a trip to the flea market, and the everyday life of small town as a violation of the Geneva Convention. People this sad, pathetic, lost, and alone are a case for assisted suicide, not cinematic evaluation. At the root of The Good Girl's problems is Jake "Bubbleheaded Boy" Gyllenhaal's Caufield wannabe Holden. He is not so much tortured as he is tedious, constantly whining like a spoiled brat who didn't get enough breast love as a child and constantly mawing his older female co-worker and love interest like he's checking her for chiggers. At one point, Justine feeds Holden a container of blackberries that she thinks, nay hopes, contain feces or bacteria or some form of organ liquefying parasite, which will poison her unpleasant paramour. But instead, we are treated to additional moments of Holdy waxing and waning, moving ever closer to his prized place in the celebrity stalker and slaying section of America's Most Wanted. Not that Aniston's Justine is any more sympathetic. So detached that retinas around her immediately loosen, she is emotionally vacant to such an extent that land developers are bidding on her intellectual property rights as we speak. Sure, she's a good girl, only because she's done nothing with her life to warrant a proclamation of badness. And these are our heroes, the people we are to root for and identify with. The Good Girl may have some interesting things to say about life, but with preachers and teachers like Holden and Justine, about all we do learn is why K-mart is presently going bankrupt.
So in the end, is life really what you make of it? Can't the world conspire to ambush you, putting up dead ends and roadblocks where once there were wide-open personal spaces? For Justine it's a little of both. Trapped in a loveless marriage that only she can see as such, and longing for a life she is not emotionally or socially capable of handling, the cosmos hands her a bewildered soul in the troubled, tender heart of Tom "Holden" Worther, and then makes her decide. Is he the answer to her prayers or just another broken avenue on the same roadmap to nowhere? Unlike most movies which offer little in the way of thought provocation or contemplation, The Good Girl sets up interesting queries while offering very few answers. Although slightly flawed in its occasionally too realistic and grounded tone, this is an excellent film that will cause one to reflect on their own interpersonal journey to review the path they've taken so far and the potholes and obstacles ahead. Goodness can be measured in purity and innocence. It can also reflect safety and caution. For Justine Last, being the quintessential anti-wild child has prepared her to leap headlong into something new without even bothering to look. Unfortunately, once these steps are taken, she can never be the good girl again. But perhaps she never was.
The Good Girl is acquitted on all charges and is free to go. Jennifer Aniston and director Miguel Arteta are admonished by the court for trying to hard for a sense of realism in an esoteric, quirky look at life. They are still found not guilty. 20th Century Fox is sentenced to six months in county jail, sentence suspended, for providing a less than stellar DVD package for this wonderful, well intentioned little film.
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Scales of Justice
• Scene Specific Commentary by Jennifer Aniston
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