In too many small-town dramas, characters lament the cruel fate that dumped them in the middle of nowhere when a hundred bucks, a bus ticket, and the classifieds section seem like the only elements needed to end their misery. The best thing about The Good Girl is the way it avoids that clichĂ©, illustrating how too little money, too many eyes, and too much pity can make the paths between home, work, Bible study, and the cut-rate motel as strong a deterrent as Hadrian's Wall. In Girl, Jennifer Aniston lives inside just such a barrier, a small Texas town that looks like a version of King Of The Hill's Arlen gone terribly wrong. Married to a housepainter (John C. Reilly) whose imagination stretches only as far as stoned fantasies about new types of paint, she spends her days behind the makeup counter at the Retail Rodeo, a store that makes Kmart look pretentious. Wearing a name-tag marked "Holden" and clutching a copy of Catcher In The Rye, new coworker Jake Gyllenhaal sparks her interest, but it takes only a short time for their relationship to reveal its limitations—some caused by guilt, some by logistics, and some by Gyllenhaal's Byron-sized sense of romantic desperation. Written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, the team behind Chuck And Buck, The Good Girl skillfully sketches the parameters of its small-town existence but never quite fleshes out the inhabitants of those parameters. Without the well-considered humor and strongly defined characters of Chuck, only a good cast stands between Girl and some familiar stereotypes. Reilly, for instance, essentially plays an emasculated troglodyte. Tim Blake Nelson, as Reilly's best friend, plays a character named Bubba, which says virtually all that needs saying; most everyone else seems to have stepped out of the diner scene in Easy Rider. The actors find more than a few moments of humor and honesty in their interactions, but there's a pervasive hollowness, and a suggestion of mockery, that keeps getting in the way of those moments meaning much. The film gives Gyllenhaal a swollen sense of post-adolescent nihilism and then takes him to task for it, but its own observations don't cut much deeper than his unfocused distaste for his surroundings.

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