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Ho Down

Arteta's Good Girl transforms a Friend into a voracious cracker everywoman.

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Sometimes when a director shoots at a barn, the satisfaction comes simply in watching him hit it dead center. So it is with The Good Girl, wherein Miguel Arteta (Star Maps) targets Middle American ennui with wit, compassion and no shortage of ornery malaise. Like Arteta's second feature, Chuck & Buck, this one's written by Mike White. Arteta's range is actually quite small, but any of his scenes feels like a previously unreleased video for Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," passionately populist.

What's impressive about The Good Girl is that it's likely to escape the trenches of the art-house circuit and put Arteta on his own star map. In design and execution, it's much more user-friendly (read: straight, white) than his previous work, though Arteta's restraint is in the service of a nasty aftertaste, especially for unsuspecting Friends fans drawn in by the showcasing of Jennifer Aniston.

Aniston does a lovely job playing Justine Last, retail employee at the depressingly fluorescent Retail Rodeo, discouraged wife of pothead housepainter Phil Last (a spot-on John C. Reilly) and -- most disturbingly -- confused woman who has finally hit thirty. A cauldron of unexamined impulses, Justine is quickly drawn to morose coworker Holden Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), who -- like his Catcher in the Rye namesake -- has decided that he's "put upon by society and the hypocrisy of the world." Drained by her staid little shack-up with "pig" Phil, Justine is eventually drawn into a reality-changing affair with Holden, trysting in the company storeroom or between the bedside artichoke lamps of the tacky Motel Glen Capri.

On the surface, The Good Girl smells a lot like a grainier Raising Arizona in its simultaneously affectionate and appalled portraiture of our wasteland's supposedly backward inhabitants. But these folks feel uncomfortably real. When Retail Rodeo's grande dame Gwen (Deborah Rush) exhorts, "You don't get paid to pick your crack! You get paid to work!" there's not a whiff of caricature to it. Likewise the hilarious but plausible presence of wanna-be goth Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), who offers a customer a new makeup product called "Cirque du Face... or, 'Circus of the Face.'"

Of course, it's disturbed Justine -- her state exacerbated by a childlike husband and an increasingly deranged lover -- that makes the movie, and Arteta and White should be commended for expanding their worldview. It would've been easy to make an Americana movie as trite and formulaic as a Counting Crows album, but the fellows challenge themselves here.

As Justine, Aniston gives a suitably rangy performance. Justine seems pretty nice, but as her addictive desire and attendant denial drive her into increasingly dire straits, we are forced to question her country-girl integrity. She's not good by any common definition, but neither is she particularly wicked. She's just nuts. And in Arteta's world, why wouldn't she be?

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