Only Human

This week in film: reality bites.

August 29, 2002

The Good Girl, the second film from the writer/director team of Mike White and Miguel Arteta (following the minor cult hit Chuck & Buck), is a well-intentioned if overly familiar bit of Americana, like American Beauty as faded suburban noir. Friends' Jennifer Aniston stars as Retail Rodeo clerk Justine in what would be the Edward G. Robinson role of the bored, frustrated, middle-class zombie who makes some bad decisions in a desperate stab at rejuvenating a stale life. Donnie Darko's Jake Gyllenhaal is mysterious co-worker Holden, the force that lures her astray.

But this is no archetypal noir tale of patsy and predator. Justine makes horrible decisions but eventually frees herself from the film's tragic trajectory. And Holden (along with pretty much everyone else in the movie, including Justine) is far too dense to make good on any sinister schemes.

Aniston plays against type here as a bored regular gal grown weary of her lifeless husband and mundane job, attempting to jump-start her moribund life by engaging in an affair with the college-dropout loner Holden, who reads The Catcher In the Rye at the register and complains that his parents "don't get him." Justine is attracted to this ("I can see in your eyes that you hate the world," she tells Holden. "I hate it too") because she doesn't think her husband gets her either and spends her days in quiet desperation, consumed with regrets. But Justine eventually realizes how disturbed and delusional Holden is and manages to extract herself from the mess of a situation she's created, resulting in a rather sardonic "happy" ending.

The Good Girl is a well-acted character study in which Aniston gives probably her most notable screen performance (that's not saying much, granted, though I am a huge fan of one of her previous films, the vastly underrecognized Office Space), but the film's tone is muddled, as if White and Arteta couldn't figure out whether they were making a Coen-style satire on service-class suburbia or a bit of hearth-and-home realism à la You Can Count On Me and In the Bedroom. More than likely, they were aiming for an ambitious seriocomic blend of both, but it doesn't take.

Aniston gives a respectful turn as the not-so-bright 30ish clerk, and the film reciprocates with affection for Justine. And the look of the decaying Southern suburban milieu -- the sub-Kmart big-box store, the modest, lived-in homes, the off-brand wardrobes -- is dead-on. But the attitude the film conveys about this world makes it far too exotic, a feature only exacerbated by the cartoonish caricatures of the male characters who revolve around Justine. The most sympathetic is Justine's stoner house-painter husband Phil (John C. Reilly, expertly playing a variation on the comical, good-hearted knucklehead he always plays). Less appealing are Holden (actually Tom, but that's his "slave name"), who is the creepiest adolescent this side of a Todd Solondz movie, Phil's painter buddy Bubba (the slant-faced Tim Blake Nelson), and White himself as Holy Roller security guard Corny. These are all naturally eccentric actors and all give fine performances on their own terms, but the cumulative effect is a buffoonishness that feels at odds with the film's more emotionally serious aims. -- Chris Herrington

Taking another sleek stab at the simulacra of Hollywood, Andrew Niccol (best known for penning the script to The Truman Show and helming the darkly satisfying sci-fi thriller Gattaca) here turns in a mindful but minor satire about an ambitious director whose digital star rises further and faster than his own.

Equal parts Pygmalion and Frankenstein, Simone stars Al Pacino as waning art-minded director Viktor Taransky, who's just been set adrift in the studio climate. A once-successful filmmaker, Viktor is in dire need of a hit and has just been sent a devastating blow by the difficult star of his latest picture. When Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) pulls out of the director's latest picture, Viktor is left with no star and a studio suddenly unwilling to back him. When he's canned by the head of production, who just happens to be his strangely benevolent ex-wife (Catherine Keener), Viktor is assured that his latest baby will never see the dark inside of a multiplex.

So what's a director to do? Well, conveniently, Viktor is approached by a dying scientist with the answer to those cinematic prayers. The answer comes in the form of Simone (played by Rachel Roberts and written S1M0NE, as in "simulation one"), a beautiful, digital starlet complete with the downloadable range of every actor who's come and gone through the Hollywood mill. With this new star, Viktor is able to recut his film and place the pixelated performer in the lead. When his picture opens, audiences are captivated with the CG beauty, who becomes an overnight sensation. But having to do double duty as the gatekeeper and creator of Simone proves bittersweet when the seemingly perfect actress goes from overshadowing the director to overtaking him.

Niccol, who demonstrated his ability to intelligently satirize the media with his snarky but slight script for The Truman Show, once again delivers an amusing, if vacuous, tale here. Refusing to explore the most interesting questions posed by his premise -- namely, the postmodern implications of adding another layer of artificiality to an already artificial artform -- Niccol instead opts to examine the business of Hollywood rather than its cinema. And while it's amusing to ruminate on the pleasures of working with an actor who never gives any lip and always thanks her director first, it's certainly not an enduring theme.

But perhaps the most irksome thing about Niccol's film is its inability to maintain a solid stance on anything. Setting out to undercut the bottom-line nature of the business of Hollywood, which continually undercuts the "art" Pacino's director is struggling to make, Simone ultimately champions the quick buck. Niccol's biggest problem may be that he is too similar to his hero. -- Rachel Deahl

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