To be gotten
Working at the Retail Rodeo isn’t so much fun as it might sound. Sure, Justine (Jennifer Aniston) has experience on the cash register and it’s not like anyone puts much energy into shopping there, so that part is easy enough. And working at the makeup counter, which she does occasionally, might break up the routine. A little. But the routine always returns with a vengeance. And Justine is weary. You can see it in her slight slump, her shambling feet and slow motion hands.
“As a girl,” Justine says as The Good Girl begins, “you see the world as a giant candy store filled with sweet candy and such.” Now 30, she gazes from her register, and the view is definitely not sweet; the camera looks out a window-wall to the mostly empty parking lot. When you older, Justine sighs, you realize that you’re locked up in a prison. No way out. She doesn’t even imagine escape. Instead, she’s “good”—responsible, quiet, resigned until she aches.
Other folks in Justine’s small East Texas nowhere find vague, generally ineffective ways “out.” Her housepainter husband Phil (John C. Reilly) escapes by smoking pot with his partner and best friend since high school, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Coworker Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel) dresses “punk” and rolls her eyes at the middle-aged ladies who shuffle through her checkout line, Corny (Mike White, who wrote the script), the security guard down at the Retail Rodeo, finds solace in Bible study. Gwen (Deborah Rush) makes sense of her life by “saving” women at the makeup counter. And their boss (John Carroll Lynch) feels best when he’s announcing something—pretty much anything—over the store’s PA system, accompanied by an “appropriate” song of his own choosing (following one employee’s unexpected death, Kate Smith’s “I’ll Be Seeing You”).
Into Justine’s black hole of a routine walks Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), glowering, self-consciously poetic, urgent. Born Tom (“my slave name”), he has taken his current name in honor of his favorite book, Catcher in the Rye (when he tells Justine this, she asks if his name is “Catcher”). At first, the two share lunchtime conversations, sitting at a picnic bench—he regales her with the plots of stories he’s writing, all involving doomed teen romance, suicidal inclinations, and desperate emotions. Anxious-making, perhaps, or maybe just trite: what little you do hear of his prose, mostly via Justine’s reading aloud, is florid and clunky. But it’s also full of passion. Justine can relate. “I was looking at you in the store and I liked how you kept to yourself,” she tells him. “I saw in your eyes that you hate the world. I hate it too.”
Their evolution from friendship to sexual trysting down at the local motel occurs awkwardly and earnestly. Each is surprised and grateful to be, as they put it, “gotten” (as in, “You get me”). But somewhere between walking past Holden’s parents in the tv room and hiding out at the motel, Justine starts thinking that the affair isn’t quite what she anticipated; like a lot of teenaged boys who feel their futures are crap, he’s morose and possessive. She feels guilty about Phil. And there is that great gap in their ages: she tells Holden, “You’re a writer, so you have a goal, I guess.” As for herself, recalling that once she looked forward to running through that candy store, Justine says, “Now I don’t even know what to imagine anymore.”
The situation turns even gloomier when Bubba spots the lovers leaving the motel one afternoon, and proceeds to blackmail Justine, for whom he has always carried something of a torch. Actually, this description doesn’t quite cover it: Bubba wants to be Phil, believing, because his own life is so miserable, that his pal’s married life is perfect, or more to the point, that sex with Justine is a defining experience. Such a convolution of logic—and the way Bubba uses it like a blunt instrument against the woman he purports to “love”—is awful but not surprising in a film written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, whose Chuck & Buck plumbed similar depths of human longing and manipulation, with similar legerdemain.
Unlike Chuck & Buck, however, The Good Girl gives viewers a break, particularly in making Justine more conventionally sympathetic than the difficult Buck. Some viewers will miss the first film’s relentlessness, but rather than contrast the two films, it seems more useful to see them as part of an ongoing process, a darkly comic exploration of relationships among characters who don’t know how to maintain them. Where Chuck & Buck considers childlike “innocence” (even in manipulation), The Good Girl looks at goodness as another form of innocence, equally imposed and equally costly, a means of wreaking havoc, of shaping fragile and necessary bonds.
The movie delves into Justine’s frustrations, her non-options (at one point, she’s literally at a crossroads, a traffic light, where she must choose between Holden and Phil, an unknown future and an all too known present). And it does so without condescending to her or treating her limited understanding as a lack of intelligence (and the heaps of praise for Aniston’s performance are well-deserved). At first, Justine believes that being “good” is a matter of following rules, of not rocking boats. But when a friend dies suddenly, and freakishly, she is not so much moved or even frightened by the loss as she is galvanized to rethink her relationships, less in terms of herself than others.
Still, that’s not to say that The Good Girl goes all soft, locates a moral ground for being “good,” or even asserts a model of decent behavior in a cold, cruel, hateful world. Smartly and disturbingly, it resists any such resolution. Superficially, the finale looks like one you’d see in another movie, involving a familial unit and smiles all around—a finale where the limited choices are somehow justified, celebrated, or just made bearable. Not in this movie. Here, the unit is uncertain and the smiles aren’t so comforting as you might wish they were. Justine has been gotten, and she’s still trying to be good.