In the popular sitcom “Friends,” as well as in the not-so-memorable films “She’s the One” and “Picture Perfect,” Jennifer Aniston has played essentially the same character, who is essentially Jennifer Aniston. In the independent flick “The Good Girl,” Aniston plays Justine Last, a hopelessly depressed clerk at the discount store “Retail Rodeo,” who is so starkly different than the typical Aniston character that about the only thing shared in common is ridiculous attractiveness. (And even this is tampered with somewhat by Justine’s frumpy walk and her no-smiling policy). Aniston anchors the film with her strong performance, while the supporting cast of “The Good Girl” play their roles just right to tell a deeply moving, and at times disturbing, story.
Working at “Retail Rodeo” is right down there with watching grass grow and paint dry on the boring scale. In one of the opening scenes, we see a man who passes time by sticking his foot into the path of the motion-activated door that is the entrance to “Retail Rodeo” each time it is about to shut. Justine hates the monotony of her job, until one day the routine is slightly broken by the sighting of a new employee. She introduces herself to find that he calls himself Holden after Holden Caulfield, the main character in his favorite book “The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) complains to Justine that nobody “gets” him. Justine feels that nobody gets her either, and soon they are both getting it on with each other in just about every location possible, from a cheap motel to the Retail Rodeo storage room.
The problem is that Justine is married to Phil (John C. Reilly), an overweight house painter who spends nearly all of his time smoking pot with his best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) and watching television. Sometimes to spice his life up he does both at the same time. Justine proclaims that she’s “married to a pig,” and Holden provides an entirely new lifestyle that she has been waiting to explode into for years. He’s young (22 to her 30), attractive, and he loves to write. “I wanna knock your head open and see what’s inside,” Holden says to Justine, and she has clearly been aching for the opportunity to meet someone cares enough to want to know who she is.
One day after work Bubba sees Justine and Holden together in Justine’s car, and so he follows them to the motel where they frequently travel to hide out and make love. Finding out about this secret relationship is a bittersweet moment for Bubba. He has always idolized Justine as the perfect woman, and finding this flaw in her faithfulness to her husband tears away at this image. However, Bubba has craved Justine since he’s known her, and the sound of her making love to a man other than Phil opens up a door in his mind that having Justine himself is now an attainable goal.
Bubba’s discovery sets off a chain of events that forces Justine to make decision after agonizing decision. She is confronted with emotions that she’s simply had no reason to feel before in her mundane life. This is when Aniston really shows her depth as an actress – we just haven’t seen her in a role before that places her in such serious situations, and here she is impressive.
Although the acting in “The Good Girl” is all-around superb, the movie’s greatest strength is its writing. Mike White wrote the script, and he also appears in the movie as Corny, Retail Rodeo’s bible-thumping security guard. White nailed the manner in which people talk when they don’t really care about something, and he effectively contrasts this with much more colorful dialogue between Justine and Holden. Holden says at one point in the film, “I just want to leave some kind of legacy. Somethin’ great. And after that I don’t care what happens to me.” What a radical thing to say in a town where nobody cares what happens in the first place.