Heart Beatings

The Good Girl is bleak fun, Blood Work is just bleak

Queen of the world's most chipper situation comedy, Jennifer Aniston doesn't immediately spring to mind as a resident of Raymond Carver country. Yet Aniston has played working-class heroines before—and rather well. As a put-upon young wife in Edward Burns' She's the One, she showed a sturdy, forthright incorruptibility that lit up an otherwise slight movie. Brad and her size-4 body notwithstanding, Aniston's glamour isn't sexual—she's a Breck girl who can slip into ordinariness without the self-importance so many pretty actresses wheel out for the down-home, "plucky" roles that boost their résumés. It's impossible not to like Aniston and equally impossible not to wish her likability would show a little wear and tear. Which makes it especially gratifying to see her play a woman who's had it up to here with making nice and making do.

In director Miguel Arteta's new film, The Good Girl(his second collaboration with madly talented screenwriter Mike White), Aniston plays Justine Last, a bored resident of Wasteland, Texas, whose world is bounded by her work as a sales assistant at the Retail Rodeo, the discount department store in which most of the action takes place, and a becalmed home life with her amiably potheaded husband, Phil (John C. Reilly), and his equally doped-up tagalong pal, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Phil's idea of conjugal adventure is a wild night out at Señor Tuna, and you can feel the depression in Justine's vacant button eyes, in the streaked blond hair carelessly scraped back from her guileless moon face, in her timid shuffle, in the sudden bursts of irritation at her husband for not getting the television repaired. She's drowning to the point that she has lost even the power to imagine another life. When a sullen new employee (Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears to be spending the year playing boy-toy to desperate older women) introduces himself as Holden, a writer of stories that end with their characters taking bug poison, Justine, who has never heard of J.D. Salinger, sees glamour where others would see a cliché. In short order, the two are humping away in a cheap motel that Justine doesn't even notice is of a piece with the world she thinks she's fled. So far from escaping to a better life, Justine spends her time trying to put out the fires she has ignited, and the movie's most satisfying—and disturbing—joke is that the deeper in she gets, the more she discovers in herself a heedless narcissist. Loudly lamenting that she wasn't a good friend to a recently deceased colleague, Justine absently leans over and pops some food from her husband's plate into her mouth.

As in the work of Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason and other chroniclers of the decline of hinterland America, The Good Girl's terrain is the desolate claustrophobia of physical and emotional decay in small towns bled of all particularity and charm by tawdry monster malls. The production design is a uniform distressed blue, like some cheap knockoff of a grungy television ad aimed at teens, and the movie's first half is cocooned in creepy stillness. People sit, stand or lie—when they move, it comes as a shock. Indeed, Aniston plays her depressed character with enough conviction to guarantee that practically every scene will be stolen out from under her by minor characters, among them a pricelessly funny Zooey Deschanel as a Retail Rodeo employee who vents her rage and frustration on the customers, and by screenwriter White, reprising the blitzed, fishy stare he perfected in Chuck & Buck, as a security guard who tries to turn Justine on to God. The Good Girl can't help but be a comedy. If it weren't, we'd all be down in the dumps with Justine, for which of us, mallified or not, hasn't felt our lives being slowly strangled by mindless routine? As in Arteta and White's previous movie, Chuck & Buck, every comic situation in The Good Girl contains a kernel of desperation, or menace, or both. The movie is hardly a morality play—her creators like Justine too much to send her the way of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary—but its message is bleak enough: no matter how you slice it, life's a prison. Have a nice day.


Huston checks out Eastwood

At 72 years old, Clint Eastwood is official movie royalty, and this is not all good. For one thing, just about everything he does is received with kid-gloved reverence—even, alas, by critics. For another, Eastwood has been a subtle crafter of his late-life image, which most of us have swallowed wholesale, including the guff. Since he turned to directing, Eastwood has made some very good films (among them The Outlaw Josey Wales; A Perfect World; Bird; White Hunter, Black Heart), one great snore (Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil), a tasteful rendition of a dumb novel (The Bridges of Madison County), an insufferably pompous piece of cant (Absolute Power), a fun romp (Space Cowboys) and one justly celebrated great movie (Unforgiven). In a good many of the movies he also stars in, Eastwood has sought, by upstaging the Gary Cooper rectitude of his salad days, to persuade us that he's at peace with being a codger and/or a fine old gent. This could be interesting and even wise about what lies beneath America's obsession with the strong, silent type. But vanity will win, as evidenced by the magnanimously bosomed youngish women who, struck dumb by Eastwood's old-school charm and sexual prowess, still populate his movies and, most spectacularly, by the final scene of Unforgiven, an orgasmic shoot-'em-up that announced in no uncertain terms, "I'm still the Man."

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