by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night I watched one of the best modern movies I’ve seen in some time — and it was from a surprising source; although it was a theatrical feature produced by something called Flan de Coco Films (a studio named after a dessert?) and released by Fox Searchlight, I recorded it early in the day from Lifetime and watched it later. It was a 2002 film called The Good Girl, a romantic triangle (sort of) evoking memories of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Shaw’s Candida as well as a more recent literary work specifically referenced in the film, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s set in a small town in Texas, where heroine Justine Last (Jennifer Anniston) works at a ghastly discount store with the equally ghastly name “Retail Rodeo.” She’s married to a house painter, Phil Last (John C. Reilly), who’d rather spend time with his friend and working partner Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) drinking beer and smoking pot than with her. The conflicts in her marriage are neatly symbolized by writer Mike White in the opening scene, in which Phil and Bubba return from a job and park their paint-covered asses right on her couch, and she tears into them about how hard it’s going to be to clean it afterwards.
The 30-year-old Justine is upset that she hasn’t yet had a child, and she’s beginning to suspect that her husband has smoked so much marijuana it’s de-potentized his sperm (and from what we see of them in bed — with her crunched over in a corner, pulling the covers around herself as if they could protect her from him, it doesn’t seem like they often get to complete the sex act anyway). On the job she’s taken with a 23-year-old (at least that’s the age he gives her; he’s really even younger than that!) stock boy named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) — well, actually the name his parents gave him was “Tom” (“my slave name,” he calls it) but he’s re-christened himself after Holden Caulfield because The Catcher in the Rye is his all-time favorite book. Justine is drawn to Holden because he seems romantically innocent; Holden is drawn to Justine because she’s the first woman who’s ever looked at him as if she might be interested, and despite her protestations (“I’m married,” she keeps saying, as if that should be the end of it — and he, all full of alienated emotions and adolescent hormones, keeps saying, “So?”), eventually she takes him to a sleazy motel and they get it on — and on the days when they can’t wait to go to the motel they have quickies in the storeroom at the Retail Rodeo.
The Good Girl is a marvelous movie because writer White and director Miguel Arteta fill it full of quirks, but the quirky parts of the story add to the characters and make us feel for them instead of alienating us and leaving us with the feeling we get in so many modern movies that we’re watching lab rats instead of real people. Justine’s boisterous but lovable co-worker Gwen Jackson (Deborah Rush) gets violently ill from an infection and dies a singularly terrifying and pointless death within days — and Justine is too busy fucking Holden to be there to support Gwen during her last days (though Gwen’s illness gives her an all too believable excuse to field Phil’s inevitable where-were-you? questions when she comes home late), Justine benefits in that she’s promoted to manager of Retail Rodeo’s cosmetics department — Gwen’s old job — but that also leaves her less time for her clandestine rendevouses with Holden. The two lovebirds are caught at the motel by Bubba, who threatens to tell Phil and gives a long, self-pitying speech about how he used to idealize the marriage of Phil and Justine and lament that he could never find a woman as loyal to him as she’s been to Phil, and now that he’s found out she’s an adultress he feels liberated from his idolatry and free to express his own desire for Justine — which he expresses as immediate blackmail: have sex with me or I tell Phil.
She does so — and Holden spies on her from the window (this film is full of people looking over each other’s shoulders and trying to find out each other’s business — it’s a staple cliché of movies set in small towns but it’s rarely pursued with the relentlessness of this) and is immediately disillusioned and calls her a whore. Justine buys Holden a box of blackberries from a street vendor, intending to get rid of him by poisoning him — she’s convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Gwen died from eating a batch of toxic blackberries from the same vendor — only she thinks better of it and knocks them out of his hand just as he’s begun to enjoy them. Holden demands that she run away with him immediately and, when she makes the obvious practical objections about how they can possibly support themselves on the run, he steals $15,000 from the Retail Rodeo’s safe — leaving his key in the lock to the storeroom where the safe was kept — and announces that he’s going to be at the motel until noon and expects Justine to meet him there. Instead she does virtually the first sensible thing she’s done all movie and reports him to the police — and then the film cuts to a TV newscast announcing the result: the police came and surrounded the motel, they heard one shot, they stormed the room and then found that Holden had used his gun on himself, a twist “planted” for us when aspiring writer Holden had earlier given Justine two of his stories, and both were about people like him who killed themselves. (Earlier Holden had expressed his life’s dream to Justine: to write a handful of best-selling novels expressing his own alienation and angst and then, like his idol J. D. Salinger, to disappear.)
The film is full of little quirks — like the Bible study class Justine is invited to by the store’s security guard, Corny (Mike White); she drags Paul to it but flees after she sees Holden on his way there with another woman on his arm — and it later develops that Corny had wired the storeroom with security cameras and was getting his own lubricious thrills from watching Holden and Justine have at each other on his security tapes. (This is one of those films that takes a decidedly cynical attitude towards monogamy and humans’ ability to achieve it; just about everyone in it has some sort of sexual twist.) In the end Justine gets pregnant even though Paul learns that his sperm is infertile — so it’s either Holden’s baby or Bubba’s — and Justine gets off the hook by lying that Corny was her affair partner (whereupon Paul and Bubba beat him up) — and we’re left with the impression that Paul and Justine are heading for an uncertain future in which she’s going to have another man’s baby and raise it as theirs, and we’re left there wondering what it’s going to be like if Holden’s decidedly twisted genes (we’ve seen his parents and, in their own ways, they’re as demented as he is) get passed on to a future generation.
The Good Girl is a lovely film of details, and yet the script is well constructed enough that the details reinforce each other and help us understand who these people are and why they behave as they do; it’s also intimately and quietly directed (which made it seem especially odd to appear alongside the melodramatic excesses of the TV-movies Lifetime usually shows) and it wears its literary allusions lightly but gains by them. The Catcher in the Rye is the source that’s directly mentioned but Holden’s last name, “Worther,” ties it in to an even older classic about alienated youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which found a mass audience among alienated young people in the 19th century much like the one Salinger’s novel found in the 20th. Indeed, the plot of The Good Girl is an almost direct modern-dress reworking of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is also about a young man with aspirations to be a writer who falls for an older, married woman, gets rejected by her and ends up committing suicide (and the book became controversial in its time because apparently a lot of real-life young men identified so completely with its depiction of adolescent despair that they killed themselves for real the way Werther had in the book).
The Good Girl is also superbly cast, with Jennifer Aniston superb in the lead (director Arteta reportedly had her wear arm weights during rehearsals so she would develop the hang-dog posture he wanted the character to have) and Jake Gyllenhaal not only younger but surprisingly heftier than we’ve become used to seeing him since — and, ironically, though he’s playing a straight boy he acts more queeny in this film than he did in his openly Gay (or at least Bi) role in Brokeback Mountain three years later. It’s a film that keeps us off balance as to how we’re supposed to feel about the characters — at first Holden sweeps us off our feet the way he did with Justine, seeming irrepressibly charming and romantic, like a giant puppy-dog in need of love — and only later are we, like Justine, so worn down with his insecurity and neediness that she literally contemplates killing him just to be rid of him (and the voice-over narration in which Justine announces that for the sake of her own reclamation she has to get rid of him strikes us in its bitter coldness and jolts us into a new awareness of the dark side of a character we’ve previously been told we should like). Though it wasn’t made for TV and didn’t come from one of Lifetime’s usual sources — and it was an odd fit with the crime/disease/romance/haunting of the week formulae usual for this channel — it was still a breath of fresh air and a welcome film to get acquainted with, especially under the auspices of a network that specializes in domestic melodramas instead of delicate, sophisticated, haunting films like this one.