Small town life doesn't get much duller than it is for Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston). Stuck in a tedious discount store job and married to insensitive, permanently stoned painter Phil (John C. Reilly), Justine's life seems to have ground to halt at the age of 30. When an enigmatic 22-year-old would-be writer called Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a job at the store, Justine finds herself drawn to this intense young man.
Writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta impressed with their deeply unsettling stalker comedy Chuck & Buck three years ago; their follow-up doesn't linger in the mind to nearly the same degree, but does paint a convincingly depressing picture of small-town American life, leavened by moments of sardonic humour. It's the sparse sameness of Justine's life that is most oppressive – day after day behind the same counter in the same half-empty store, getting home at the same time each day to find Phil and his numbskull workmate Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) spaced out on the sofa, the same terrible reception from the broken TV in the bedroom.
Holden is as deep as a puddle and Justine knows it – he writes angst-ridden prose about troubled young men topping themselves, and has changed his name from Tom in tribute to the main protagonist of Catcher in the Rye ("Tom is my slave name," he tells her). Holden is actually as selfish as Justine's husband, only interested in getting his end away and completely uncaring about the emotional chaos that their affair turns Justine's life into. But simply because he's someone different, because he talks about literature and not paint, Justine is unable to resist getting involved with him.
The Good Girl suffers from Frankie & Johnny-syndrome - the casting of a too-beautiful actress in a role that really calls for a dowdy, ordinary-looking woman. But Aniston is undeniably good, adopting a convincing Texan drawl (to my Brit ears at least) and subtly underplaying many scenes which have the danger of turning melodramatic. One of the film's strengths is the way it develops initially one-dimensional characters in unexpected ways – Bubba turns from simply disagreeable to sad and compassionate, while Phil actually emerges more likable than Justine's young lover. Reilly, Nelson and Gyllenhaal are all good in familiar roles, while Mike White pops up in a small role as the store's security guard and is no less unnerving as he was in Chuck & Buck.
Arteta and White on occasion let the film drift a little close to the realms of soap opera – by the end we have grand larceny, two corpses and a 'surprise' pregnancy. But the detached, unsentimental tone and intelligent writing make this for the most part a sympathetic portrait of prematurely stalled lives.
Puerto Rican director whose first film, 1997's Star Maps, was shaped by his own bitter experiences as a minority trying to make it in Hollywood. Followed up by the acclaimed black comedies Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, both written by college friend Mike White. He followed them up with an adaptation of cult novel Youth in Revolt.