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THE GOOD GIRL ****

By GUY FLATLEY

CAST: Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, Zooey Deschanel, Tim Blake Nelson, Mike White, Deborah Rush, John Carroll Lynch, John Doe, Roxanne Hart

DIRECTOR: Miguel Arteta

SCREENWRITER: Mike White


The last time director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White got together, they created "Chuck & Buck," an artfully primitive, poignant comedy in which White played an emotionally infantile man still fixated on a former male classmate with whom he once enjoyed a sexual relationship of sorts. That film, one of the most memorable surprises of 2000, is now surpassed by another fresh, bizarre comic collaboration by Arteta and White, one in which a slimy, sexually insecure bachelor wants to be exactly like his best friend, a former football hero who is now a slobbish, married pothead. He wants to drink like him, smoke like him, think like him, and shag his wife like him. And splendid as Tim Blake Nelson and John C. Reilly are as Bubba and Phil, the broken-down house painters, it's a pleasure to report they mostly stick to the sidelines in "The Good Girl" (as does author White, who plays the small but crucial role of a unctuous, born-again security guard at Retail Rodeo, a wannabe department store in a sterile Texas town).

The centerpiece--in every sense of the word--is Justine, the drained, disenchanted 30-year-old wife of Phil, acted with astonishing humor and depth by Jennifer Aniston, who should receive an Oscar nomination for her efforts. Justine's got a going-nowhere job at Retail Rodeo, knows her husband is a pig but would kind of like to have a baby, anyway (though she suspects Phil's sperm has been spoiled by too much weed). What she doesn't have is an ounce of romance or hope in her drab life--not, that is, until the day Holden (as in J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield) is hired as a Retail Rodeo clerk. As played by the remarkable Jake Gyllenhaal in superstar style, Holden is a loony blend of saint and psycho, poet and impostor. How this 22-year-old burnout gets Justine into bed (guess who pays for the motel room?), and how he makes it impossible for Justine to turn down an invitation to slip into the sack with good old blackmailing rubba-dub-Bubba is something you'll discover for yourself when you see this unpretty, unpredictable study of lust, betrayal, crime, punishment and cockeyed grace under pressure.

"The Good Girl" is a great treat, about as far from Hollywood as you can get. Suddenly, the movie year is looking up.