The Good Girl

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The men behind “The Good Girl” do not view their characters as real people. They are a means to an end, pawns in a game, punch lines to a joke. The director, Miguel Arteta, and the writer, Mike White, do not take them seriously, and neither should you.

As human punch lines, they do pretty well. Most of the jokes are, in fact, funny. But as the film wears on, and the situations grow more serious, it becomes difficult to feel any compassion for them. And a serious event without compassion is a cold, uninteresting affair.

The film stars Jennifer Aniston as Justine, an ordinary Texas girl. She is 30 and has been married for several years to Phil (John C. Reilly), a house painter who spends most of his time smoking pot with his buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Justine’s life is dull and uneventful. She loves her husband, and he loves her, but their marriage is stagnant. She works at Retail Rodeo, a local ShopKo sort of establishment, where she’s just as bored as when she’s at home.

And then she meets Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a brooding, quiet 22-year-old just hired as a cashier. His real name is Tom (“Tom is my slave name,” he says), but he goes by Holden because he identifies with the protagonist of “Catcher in the Rye.” Justine, increasingly trying to avoid “going to the grave with unlived lives in (my) veins,” gives in to Holden’s advances and begins an affair with him — for which she immediately feels guilty.

The film almost might have worked better as a tragic romance, not a comedy. Gyllenhaal is fantastic as Holden, and Aniston is no slouch at her end, either. John C. Reilly is characteristically fresh and watchable as the pothead husband.

The comedy, meanwhile, is at times very funny, but Arteta keeps things too staid and repressed to ever achieve high hilarity. The best moments are with Justine’s co-workers: a smiling Bible-thumper (screenwriter Mike White), an anarchic clerk (Zooey Deschanel), an optimistic makeup salesgirl (Deborah Rush).

It is well-plotted, too. Marital infidelity is nothing new in the movies, of course, and no new ground is broken here. (They try to make too much of the eight-year age difference between Justine and Holden.) But there are a few good twists and surprises; it is certainly not a by-the-numbers story.

Arteta’s disaffected attitude comes across almost as haughty, like he’s laughing at these people more than with them. The Coen Brothers are often accused of the same thing, as in “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo,” but the difference is that those movies are either hysterically funny or profoundly well-executed. “The Good Girl” is adequately funny and reasonably well-executed, and nothing more.

B- (; R, some harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, some non-sexual nudity.)

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