Cinema Signal:

The Good Girl's Guide to Bad Girl Sex
. "The Good Girl"

Here is a modest little film that is about something. What that is might be summed up as: you don't appreciate what you have until you're about ready to throw it away. This message comes cloaked in an amusing tale about modest folks in a small town you might think are there for the amusement factor, but there's so much more than comedy lurking beneath the surface that, by the end of the picture you might be emotionally numbed by the pathos in the experience.

Justine Last (Jennifer Anniston) is a 30-year old clerk at a Texas Retail Rodeo who is suffering from a morbid dissatisfaction with the drabness of her existence, both at home with house-painter husband Phil (John C. Reilly) and at the store where career advancement might be to take over the makeup counter. But around this time when depression is threatening to overcome her, a new clerk makes an appearance in the form of Holden, aka Tom (Jake Gyllenhaal) his adopted and his given names. He's as morose and self-absorbed as she is, fashioning himself a writer and hiding his nose between the pages of "Catcher in the Rye" (hence the name, Holden). But all this is about to change because these two withdrawn personalities have discovered each other.

Justine seems justified in considering a relationship with another man, even though he's years younger, when we see her home scene. Phil and his buddy Bubba, a dimwitted pot smoker with a heavy drawl and moronic manner -- are lounging over some weed on the couch after their exciting day of house painting and leaving red paint all over the nice couch. To further compound the inadequacies of the marriage, it turns out that one of them is unable to conceive, and before this is over, we're going to find out which one.

It's not like she set out to be a philanderer, but escape from reality never looked so good and, pretty soon, she's trysting with the disaffected young writer whose healthy hormones are leading her to consider a new life somewhere else. His willingness to do anything to bring this about gets them both in deep trouble and, ultimately, to a decision of life altering consequences.

The lesson that this film imparts is that engaging storytelling is not about big budgets. We have an impeccably chosen cast at bargain basement prices, in a limited number of sets. But there's nothing bargain basement about how involving this is, and nothing deficient in the performances.

Jennifer Anniston's easy manner of delivery gets you wrapped into her crushing world as she makes you wince at every little misstep she takes, every judgement she applies that could be the beginnings of disaster. There is nothing here to slightly suggest other roles she's been known for, and she demonstrates completeness in the skills of her profession.

After playing an adolescent lover for Catherine Keener in "Lovely and Amazing", Jake Gyllenhaal slightly dispels the fears of establishing a corner in the market for being cast in such roles. Here he is again, though, taking his older "girl" home, past his parents, and into his room for the kind of pubescent behavior every boy dreams about. Here he is, again, panting for the older woman when the complications surrounding such relationships threaten it. This role is written differently, and he comes off convincing us of his boyish dreams and the hormonal basis for his destiny, but we hope he stays away from the type for a good enough while that simple maturity would take a repeat of it out of the realm of possibility.

In the supporting cast there are nothing but standouts. John Carroll Lynch, credited as Jack Field, Your Store Manager, is so straight, so decent and well-meaning, that he gives earnestness new meaning in a comedic context. But, he's not the only crackup in this quirky melodrama. He is perhaps outdone by Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel) whose utter zaniness in applying her own stamp on commercial announcements in the store and, then, later, in applying powder and makeup on the poor customers, sets her in a mold of uniqueness heretofore occupied by such talents as Parker Posey and Tea Leoni.

John C. Reilly is the coarse low-life dependable hubby who's blind faith in his marriage bonds and undiminishable thankfulness for Justine as his wife is played with precise understanding. And, finally, Tim Blake Nelson whose dumb country boy personna was so indispensable to the success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" expands the type as Phil's lower-life buddy and hero-worshipper as he explores the possibilities, comedic and threatening, in a surprisingly dimensioned part.

This film, written with that surprising dimensionality by Mike White (also plays Corny, the bible thumping store security officer) was directed with on-pitch style by Miguel Arteta. Arteta has a string of serio-comedy credits: "Six Feet Under", "Chuck & Buck", "Freaks and Geeks" and "Snoops".

Gillian Welch sings "Ride Ride" smoothly and perfectly over the end credits. The meaning of the song is not quite relatable to the movie, but the tone is right in terms of the mood you're left with as you watch the credits scroll. Welch is a singer of immense emotional power and can easily turn "Railroad Bill" into a soul search.

Seriousness lurking under a thick layer of humor gives "The Good Girl" a rarely seen style that should not be missed or ignored.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written, perceptive
I've seen the movie and agree with the review

Writing movie reviews is an art form. Don't have to agree with them to enjoy. Nice writing. A lot more character development than is usual for an American audience.

                                                           ~~ Gil 

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Jennifer Anniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, pondering possibilities

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