Sunshine State
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   C R I S S A - J E A N   C H A P P E L L

Working as a checkout girl at the Retail Rodeo, Justine's dreary days flicker like a weak pulse with tiny variations. As played by Jennifer Aniston, she’s pretty in a way that has nothing to do with magazines, with milk-blue eyes always pinned to the horizon, longing for something better. Night after night, she comes home to find her slouchy, house-painter husband Phil (John C. Reilly) and his lunkheaded sidekick, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), stoned on the couch. As they drone on about the molecular structure of paint, Justine’s gaze drifts out the window, where she pictures the Texas highways, long and flat and twisting out into nothing.

Justine's husband talks about having a baby, but he blames his wife because she can’t conceive. Justine returns to her job and those timeless days when only the clock tells if it’s morning or night. At the cosmetics counter, she smears halfmoons of rouge on withered old ladies who’ve come for the “free makeover” and never buy anything. At lunch, she leaves the store's green, aquarium light for a picnic table in the parking lot.

With their latest Sundance hit, The Good Girl, Mike White and Miguel Areta, the quirky team behind Chuck and Buck, have crafted an intriguing morality tale disguised as a black comedy. They do a masterful job of rendering Justine’s dreary existence without sinking into fits of sentiment. Neither preachy nor moralizing, they paint an honest portrait of human misery.

White's screenplay offers Justine an escape from her routine life in the form of a new checker, a college drop-out who calls himself Holden (Jake Gyllenhall), after the lonely narrator in Catcher in the Rye. (“Tom is my slave name,” he says.) She looks at him, all sinew and suspicion, and knows that he hates the world. He becomes her partner in misery. “You get me,” he says. “No one’s gotten me before.” But does Holden get her? Justine seeks release from the boredom of her marriage in a lusty affair. Soon it’s clear that Justine’s soulful young paramour is missing a few neural connections. This ill-fated affair is pulling her out of shape. Their relationship spins into a bizarre series of events, triggered by Justine’s web of white lies. She’ll fight to keep her unhappy home from combusting, despite her dissatisfaction with it.

The Good Girl is a brave departure for Aniston (who has starred in other indie flicks, such as Ed Burns’ She’s the One), with her famous hair gone frizzy and loose, her curves nonexistent in Levi’s baggy jeans. Zooey Deschanel also steals a few scenes as her punkish coworker. So does scriptwriter White as the pasty, Bible-thumping security guard.

Although we feel for Justine and the unhurried sameness of her life, her careless choices feel less than forgivable. Like a modern-day Madame Bovary, she can only romanticize what she hasn’t experienced. Justine relishes the jolting effect of her affair, but new sensations are fleeting and quickly replaced by others. Her motel romps with Holden can’t make her happy. She perpetuates her own gloom, living in fear that she would somehow offend if she stood up for herself. Her disenchantment with the ordinary rhythms of life leaves her wanting more. She imagines her unlived future like a flicker of lightning against the long, steady roll of shopping malls, a glimpse from a world we aren’t meant to see.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Fox Searchlight
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Photo credits: © 2002 Fox Searchlight. All rights reserved.