A warmly satisfying comedy about dissatisfied people seeking to escape from the personal prison of their mundane lives in soulless suburbia, "The Good Girl" shows director Miguel Arteta further refining the strengths already evident in "Star Maps" and "Chuck & Buck."

A warmly satisfying comedy about dissatisfied people seeking to escape from the personal prison of their mundane lives in soulless suburbia, “The Good Girl” shows director Miguel Arteta further refining the strengths already evident in “Star Maps” and “Chuck & Buck.” Like those earlier films, this one comes up short in terms of visual flair. But it delivers amusingly observed characters, consistent laughs underscored by the poignancy of unfulfilled existences and winning performances from a terrific cast captained by Jennifer Aniston. Almost certain to land a significant domestic acquisition deal in Sundance, pic looks likely to be among the more commercial contenders of the current indie crop.

Scripted again by Mike White, who wrote and starred in “Chuck & Buck,” the story centers on 30-year-old Justine (Aniston), who works in ultra-tacky small-town Texas department store Rodeo Retail. Opening stretch swiftly places her in a suffocating world of oddball co-workers and a stagnant marriage to house painter Phil (John C. Reilly), who sits around all day with his fellow pothead buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) and whose heavy weed consumption may be the cause of Justine’s failure to become pregnant.

The arrival at work of Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a new cashier with a fixation on “The Catcher in the Rye” and a romantic view of himself as a writer and societal misfit, gives Justine what she describes as a glimpse of the light after living in the dark. But as their friendship blossoms into an affair, the younger man’s attachment to her quickly becomes obsessive. The sudden death of terminally perky co-worker Gwen (Deborah Rush) casts a cloud over Justine’s newfound liberation, and her discovery at a motel by Bubba, who uses the knowledge for his own sexual gain, represents an additional sign that the idyll must end.

While Justine is not without a conscience, White’s screenplay perhaps shortchanges the character in some of her responses to the chaos she creates as she wavers between loyal dullard Phil and unpredictable, infantile Holden, particularly when her actions directly result in tragedy. But her acceptance of an utterly regular destiny provides bittersweet pangs, as does Phil’s willingness to swallow whatever truth she hands him.

The comedy is remarkably sustained and buoyantly paced, at the same time bringing a humanistic stamp to its observations about depression, dissatisfaction and longing as each character grasps for his own avenue of escape.

One of the chief pleasures is the frequently hilarious scenes involving the bizarre universe of Rodeo Retail staffers. Standouts among them are a judgmental Bible-thumping security guard (White) and a bored clerk (Zooey Deschanel) given to subversive personal flourishes in her customer service announcements and free cosmetics counter makeovers. Nelson is disarming even when using blackmail to secure his dimwitted character’s elevation; Reilly balances Phil’s doltish side with his sweet-natured capacity for love and forgiveness; and Gyllenhaal is touching and funny as a desperate guy of limited talent and resources, whose dreams of rebel glory are let down by his instability and immaturity.

Aniston at first appears wrong for the role, her flawless skin and perfect highlights making her hard to believe as the wife of a trashy loser like Phil. But while she could have been further deglamorized to serve the role, the actress successfully sheds her sitcom persona and puts the complex character across. She makes Justine smart enough to yearn for a better life but not so smart as to seem alien to her surroundings, keeping her sympathetic even in her most confused and duplicitous moments as she contemplates solutions like those of a murderous melodrama heroine.

While Arteta has become a very solid director of character-driven comedy with enormous skill in the handling of his actors, what he needs most is a strong d.p., able to create a more interesting look than the rather flat take on the suburban wasteland served up here.

The Good Girl

Production

A Myriad Pictures presentation in association with In-Motion, WMF V of a Flan de Coco production. Produced by Matthew Greenfield. Executive producers, Kirk D'Amico, Philip Von Alvensleben, Carol Baum. Co-producers, Shelly Glasser, Gina Kwon. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Screenplay, Mike White.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Enrique Chediak; editor, Jeff Betancourt; music supervisor, Margaret Yen; production designer, Daniel Bradford; art director, Macie Venier; set decorator, Susan Emshwiller; costume designer, Nancy Steiner; sound (Dolby Digital), Yehuda Maayan; assistant director, Linda Brachman; casting, Joanna Colbert. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 12, 2002. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Justine Last - Jennifer Aniston
Holden Worther - Jake Gyllenhaal
Phil Last - John C. Reilly
Bubba - Tim Blake Nelson
Cheryl - Zooey Deschanel
Corny - Mike White
Gwen Jackson - Deborah Rush
Jack Field - John Carroll Lynch

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