THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


One of the perils of being on a long-running, top-rated TV show is typecasting. People get so used to seeing an actor or actress in the same role year after year that it can be tough to break away from that persona. (Is there anyone who can't look at Michael Richards without thinking "Kramer"?) When a performer is able to break free from that typecasting and show new abilities, it often comes as a revelation. Some have trouble doing this, but Jennifer Aniston has done it in The Good Girl. She plays a character miles away from Rachel on "Friends" and, in the process, turns in a performance that has a decent shot at an Oscar nomination.

Zooey Deschanel and Jennifer Aniston face another dull day at work in The Good Girl
Aniston plays Justine Last, a 30-year old woman who works at a Texas discount store called Retail Rodeo. Her life is not happy. The job is dead-end and minimum wage. Her husband Phil (John C. Reilly) is a house painter who spends more time smoking weed with buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) than with Justine. Their marriage is weak, partially because they have been unable to conceive a child. Justine wanders through life feeling disillusioned and pissed off. Then she meets a new cashier at the store, Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal). His real name is Tom, but he calls himself Holden because of his identification with the hero in "The Catcher in the Rye." The kid is twenty-two and every bit as disillusioned as she is. They connect in a weird mad-at-the-world way, eventually succumbing to an affair.

Justine quickly realizes that, although Holden is the first person to ever "get" the way she feels, he is not exactly the model of rebellion he claims to be. This is a kid with issues. She tries to break off the affair, but he makes all kinds of declarations of love for her. Their romance leads to feelings of guilt and betrayal, even though she thinks Phil is "a pig." When the affair threatens to be revealed, Justine tries to make the best decision possible to avoid hurting anybody. Of course, this backfires badly, leading her to make a series of other choices that ultimately send her life on a different course.

I found Justine to be one of the most interesting female characters I've seen in a movie for quite some time. She tries to be a good person, tries to do what's right. It is never her intention to bring hurt to anyone, although that's often what ends up happening. She is confused, and this confusion clouds her logic sometimes. On "Friends," Aniston has shown an ability to play this kind of thing for comic value, but in The Good Girl she takes it deeper, bringing out the inner rage of a character who never outwardly appears to be anything but docile or passive. This is a portrait of unhappiness and the way that feeling can send someone spiraling into a series of bad choices. Aniston removes her Hollywood glamour to convincingly play a drab Texas cashier teetering on the edge of depression. It's one of the best performances of the year.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Jake Gyllenhaal makes a big impact as the kid whose troubles lead to erratic behavior. He has nice scenes with Aniston, as Holden's increasing madness nicely counters Justine's desire to level out. John C. Reilly could have played pot smoking louse Phil as a one-note jerk, but he brings more dimension to it. You can see where Phil might have been a decent guy at one point. Tim Blake Nelson provides some welcome comic relief as Phil's straggler buddy, as does Zooey Deschanel as Justine's passive-aggressive co-worker.

It's not fair to reveal where The Good Girl ultimately takes you, but I can say that this is a story about reexamining one's life and playing the cards that have been laid on the table. Justine knows that running away with Holden probably isn't a realistic option; as much as she wants to leave, it's not really practical because it would only take her to a very uncertain future. The movie is filled with characters who want to escape the dreary existence of their own less-than-perfect lives. The last scene provides a surprisingly hopeful scenario, as Justine discovers the disturbed kid is not the only one capable of "getting" her.

The Good Girl was directed by Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, Chuck & Buck) and written by Mike White (Orange County), who also plays a security guard. They find just the right tone for the material, adding humor when its necessary and empathy where it's needed. But it's Jennifer Aniston who makes this movie sing. In real life, she's rich, she's famous, and she's married to Brad Pitt. For the 94 minutes of this movie, she is absolutely convincing as a woman learning that the road to something more doesn't necessarily lead out of town.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Good Girl is rated R for sexuality, some language and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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