The minimalist fiction that Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and others were writing 20 years ago was sometimes called "K-Mart realism." Feeding off the banal details of backwater lives, it did not breakfast at Tiffany's. Mike White, whose screenplay betrays a literary sensibility, sets the opening and much of the rest of The Good Girl in a discount store called Retail Rodeo that is very much like K-Mart. Justine Last (Aniston) works in the cosmetics department, and she hates her job and her life. Justine has been married for seven years to Phil (Reilly), an amiable dunce who works as a housepainter when it is not raining, and it rains so much throughout this film it could have been Seattle instead of West Texas (It was actually shot in California). When the precipitation precludes outdoor work, Phil and his goofy buddy Bubba hang out together on Phil's couch, smoking dope and staring catatonically at the TV screen.
When a new employee (Gyllenhaal) shows up at the Retail Rodeo, curiosity overcomes Justine's anomie. Something about this solitary college dropout convinces Justine that he shares her radical alienation.
"I saw in your eyes that you hated the world," she tells him. "I hate the world too." With that, the two are bonded, and it is not long before they are skulking off together to the Motel Glen Capri, daily rate $45. Though his parents call him Tom, he, fixated on The Catcher in the Rye, insists his name is Holden. Justine, who passed up college in order to marry Phil, has to be told that Holden Caulfield ends up crazy. Her young Holden is already there.
Despite the name of the film, Justine is not especially good — as a wife, a worker, or a mistress. And at 30, more of a mother than a paramour to 22-year-old Holden, she is hardly a girl. But the irony in the title The Good Girl is not especially scintillating. It might more accurately have been called: Madame Bovary in West Texas, and to underline its connection to Flaubert's novel, screenwriter White — who also appears as Corny, a nerdy, Bible-toting security guard — even inserts a minor character named Floberta. However, The Good Girl does not share too much more with Madame Bovary beyond the basic premise of provincial ennui pushing a woman into squalid adultery. While Emma Bovary is driven by impossible dreams, Justine Last is sleepless in West Texas. She is so benumbed by everything in her life — the daily absurdities at Retail Rodeo, a pothead husband who is oblivious to her needs — that it is hard to imagine her imagining anything else. It is not passion but exasperation that propels her into the arms of a psychotic young stranger.
Television made Aniston a star, but the flickering tube makes gaping zombies out of almost every character in The Good Girl. Justine believes that she and Holden are the only ones alive to the absurdity of their lives, but this dark comedy about shared loneliness is a gloss on Thoreau's observation that: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Phil's is so quiet that his wife does not notice, except perhaps during a grotesque visit to a fertility clinic. But Bubba's desperation, based on his preposterous idealization of Phil and Justine, is so loud it raises the ambient noise by several decibels. While most of the other actors struggle to portray affectlessness in a perky way, Tim Blake Nelson's performance as Bubba is over the top, and he sets the top spinning. Gwen (Rush), Justine's co-worker and a jaunty evangelist for healthy diet, suddenly drops dead of food poisoning. While Bubba and Gwen are caricatures, Justine, Phil, and Holden are grim facsimiles. Aniston, Reilly, and Gyllenhaal inhabit their doltish roles, but no one else would want to live there.
Interrogated about her clandestine lover, Holden, Justine can honestly declare: "I hardly know him." She learns that there are no secrets in her community of prying eyes and rednecks, but neither is there enlightenment. A viewer learns from The Good Girl not much more than not to meet a lover outside Chuck E. Cheese and not to shop at Retail Rodeo.
The Good Girl
"Emma Bovary in West Texas"
Dir. Miguel Arteta; writ. Mike White; feat. Jennifer Aniston, Deborah Rush, Mike White, John Carroll Lynch, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zooey Deschanel, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson (R)