Playing it Safe

'The Good Girl' takes a tried and true approach despite its independent status.

In the course of two days, I watched the workmanlike "indie" film The Good Girl and the tremendously awful exploitation movie Scarlet Diva. While The Good Girl was well constructed and featured several good performances, Scarlet Diva was plotted like a homemade porno move and included some of the worst dialogue I've heard since Showgirls. On the whole, then, I much preferred Scarlet Diva, because at least it had the courage to suck.

Good Girl is being hailed as Jennifer Aniston's breakout movie, and thank God, because it's about time she became a star. And really, what's an independent film good for if not bolstering the careers and vanity of multimillionaires who appear on every magazine cover every week?

The terribly standard story has Aniston playing Justine Last, a Texas department store worker who is tired of her stoner husband Phil (John C. Reilly). At work, she falls in love with a young stereotype named Holden Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), a depressed young man with writerly ambitions.

Luckily, the department store isn't only populated by this bargain basement Benjamin Braddock and his sitcom Mrs. Robinson. In fact, while they play out their boilerplate drama, a couple of minor characters manage to show the kind of humor and inventiveness that could have gone into this movie, if only it wasn't so concerned with properly lighting Aniston's cute little nose.

As Cheryl, the sarcastic department store P.A. announcer, Zooey Deschanel assures her customers that the makeup they're buying repels both water and urine, and that Liquid-Plumr is great for their feminine plumbing problems. Screenwriter Mike White gives himself some of the best lines in his role as store security officer Corny, whose Christianity is brought up for repeated ridicule. Sure, it's cheap and easy, but the script still manages to make it funny. Plus, and I think this is notable, his best joke appears in the trailer to the film, but without the punch line, so when you see it in the movie it's still funny.

When it's not making fun of Christians or letting Deschanel toss off her seemingly limitless supply of deadpan profanities, the movie focuses on the tired story of a woman who's not getting what she wants out of life.

Which is a shame, because some really good performers turned up for this by-the-numbers outing. John C. Reilly is widely considered one of the best character actors of his generation (you may remember him as the praying police office in Magnolia or the second-rate porn star in Boogie Nights) and he teams up with the over-exposed, but still potentially talented, Tim Blake Nelson to do a kind of Cheech and Chong meet Abbot and Costello act. Sadly, they adopt Abbot's comic timing and Chong's nuanced acting skills, leaving their talents in reserve for a more deserving feature.

Nelson plays Bubba, who has an enormous crush on Jennifer Aniston's Justine, and a similarly large longing for her husband Phil. His story, while uncomfortable to watch, is at least a good bit more original than the main storyline, and delivers some interesting insights into the life of the beta male, an under-explored character type that, while perhaps not deserving the condescension and ridicule that Good Girl give it, at least gets some exposure here.

While Tim Blake Nelson plays his role as a caricature of the Gilligan, his Skipper, John C. Reilly, does get to flex his thespian muscles later in the film when he gets past acting stoned all the time and produces some genuine pathos as a dim-witted guy who can't figure out why his wife doesn't seem to like him anymore.

Still, the best acting and writing remain in the minor parts. John Doe, whom you may remember as leader of the best goddamn American punk rock band ever, is fabulous as Holden's father. The most amazing thing is that he has no lines, a fact he accentuates with an unmoving facial expression that is impossible to read, and yet somehow simultaneously hilariously funny.

In the end Good Girl is a perfectly acceptable film. It's certainly not boring, the script cautiously avoids any groan-worthy lines, and director Miguel Arteta is skillful at making you care for the characters who have happy endings and dislike the characters who get beat up in the end.

Still, having spent the last five years watching the explosion of the indie film arena, I'm saddened that these directors and writers aren't using their outsider status as an opportunity to do something different. The Hollywood moguls can be counted on to regurgitate their old stock, so there's no real need for someone who at least has the option of having integrity to do it for them.

The Good Girl isn't bad, but, without a studio head focus-grouping it into meaninglessness, it had a chance to be either great or awful. I'd have a lot more respect for it if it had at least risked the latter in attempting the former. Safety should be for our guns and cars, not our cinema.

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