Girl Gone Wild

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Review of The Good Girl by Emma Taylor.

Matching Jennifer Aniston mope, scheme, and shag her way through The Good Girl (written by Mike White, directed by Miguel Arteta, the creators of Chuck and Buck) is like letting go of a good Friend (sorry). For all the unabashed Rachel fans out there (i.e. those of us who can recite the cutesy “I’ll make your favorite smoothie” improvisations Brad and Jen made in their wedding vows last year), it’s time to share her with the Serious Film Fans. Turns out, the girl can act.

Aniston plays Justine, an understimulated, disillusioned, thirty-year-old Texan who’s just realized she should have gone to college, should have left town, and shouldn’t have married so early. Unfortunately, most of the women she knows accepted their fate a decade ago, and most of the men — including her pothead, house-painter husband (the quietly brilliant John C. Reilly) — are too high to care. So Justine befriends the only other person in town who thinks nobody “gets him”: her twenty-two-year-old co-worker Holden (Jake Gyllenhall, in a darker version of his role in Lovely and Amazing). Of course, he’s supposed to hate the whole world and not be “got” by anybody — he’s twenty-two. “I like how you keep to yourself,” she tells him. “I can see it in your eyes: You hate them all, too.” He can’t believe his luck: A real-live grown-up (whose cuteness can’t be disguised by an oversized pair of overalls and a funny walk) who hasn’t sold out, who hasn’t given into the quiet desperation of the suburbs, who’s a subversive undercover pessimist at the Retail Rodeo (the wannabe Wal-Mart where they work). In other words, someone who gets him. Naturally, his name isn’t really Holden — he’s just a melodramatic wannabe writer who hates his parents and got thrown out of college for drinking too much (the latter being perhaps the least convincing plot point of the entire film). At the moment they meet in aisle three, where he’s restocking baking soda, they feel like they’re the only two real people in a world full of “phonies” (as the real Holden Caulfield once put it). And so, in the grand tradition of rebel lovers from Adam and Eve to Bonnie and Clyde, they become lunch buddies.

But it’s never just lunch, is it? Pretty soon he’s showing her his short stories (or his “legacy,” as he calls them), which are all variations on the boy-hates-world, boy-commits-suicide theme. Soon, Justine and Holden are fucking in the Retail Rodeo stockroom and the rent-by-the-hour motel on the outskirts of town. It’s not particularly romantic, or even that passionate, it’s just what comes next — for Justine, because she’s used to letting things simply happen to her; and for Holden, because he’s twenty-two and she’s there. But once the dirty deed is done, Holden becomes convinced that Justine is his savior, while she just savors her misbehavior. “I have a secret now,” she says. “I like that.”

Sure, she loves him. Sort of. But this isn’t a love that could move mountains or even unravel her dismal marriage. Instead, it creates a detour on her one-track life, and gives her a choice: Be the good girl, or be the bad one. You’ll be glad to know she’s a bit of both: Lets her husband hold her boob to assist in his delivery of a semen sample at the doctor’s office (good girl); abandons her friend at the hospital so as not to be late for an after-work liaison with the young luvver (bad girl); drags hubby along to a Bible study (good girl); attempts to poison the young luvver when he won’t shut the hell up (bad girl). Her life is suddenly overflowing with decisions about which secrets aren’t worth hiding, and which are worth a blackmail fuck to keep hidden.

Holden, in search of his own drama, writes the story of her life, suggesting she’ll come to the dark side; meanwhile her boss promotes her to cosmetics, encouraging her to use her powers for good. In the end, it’s hard to tell if Justine’s final choice (which comes as she sits alone at a stoplight) is morally right or wrong. Maybe it doesn’t matter, because when this girl is good, she’s very good, but when she’s bad, she’s better.

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Emma Taylor Contributing editor Emma Taylor is one half of “Em & Lo,” and has been a near-expert at Nerve for the past five years. Together with her better half, Lo, she has written Nerve’s two original books, “The Big Bang” (July ’03) and “Nerve’s Guide to Sex Etiquette” (February ’04). She writes for Men’s Journal, Glamour, The Guardian (U.K.) and EmandLo.com. She can currently be heard starring on Nerve’s voicemail system.