The New York Times, June 5, 2006

There was a moment back in 2002 when Jennifer Aniston gave such a lovely, heartbreaking performance in the small film "The Good Girl" [shown at left] that her future as a serious actress seemed secure. And it was less than a year ago that women in Los Angeles wore T-shirts reading "Team Aniston," sympathizing with her as a real-life good girl dumped by that cad Brad Pitt for the femme fatale from "Team Jolie." But since then Ms. Aniston's career has seemed like a case study in how not to become a movie star, how to forfeit the title of America's sweetheart and how savagely those on-and-off-screen roles can merge. How did her career go haywire so fast? And can her latest gambit, the box-office hit "The Break-Up," set it right?

A wan, predictable romantic comedy, "The Break-Up" reveals a lot about the problems — the brittle on-screen persona and the public relations misfires — behind her wavering career. The film, in which she and Vince Vaughn play a separated couple living in and squabbling over their Chicago condo, was No. 1 at the weekend box office, making just over $38 million, beyond the most optimistic industry predictions. That showing may owe something to the lack of competition for romantic comedies, but it is above all a tribute to the power of celebrity gossip and hype. Refusing to confirm or deny their rumored off-screen romance, the film's stars have not-talked about it separately on late-night shows, in print interviews, all over the place.

Ms. Aniston needed this hit, because "The Break-Up" follows a terrible professional run. In the last year she has appeared in two high-profile movies — the disappointing thriller "Derailed" and the stink-bomb comedy "Rumor Has It" — and the smaller "Friends With Money," in which she was the least convincing member of an ensemble.

The characters in these films are wildly different, but Ms. Aniston's performance isn't. She projects the same high-maintenance Jennifer Aniston style — the trademark sleek hair, the natural-looking makeup, the body so toned you wonder how many hours a day a person can spend with a trainer — whether she's supposed to be a con woman posing as an executive in "Derailed," an obituary writer for The New York Times in "Rumor Has It" (trust me, no one here looks like that), or a woman so demoralized she quits her teaching job to clean houses in "Friends With Money."

Along with that polished look, she exudes coolness and self-possession even when the part calls for warmth or vulnerability. She did warm and vulnerable winningly in the cult movie "Office Space" (1999). But lately all her characters uncomfortably resemble the one who made her rich and famous, the feather-brained Rachel on "Friends," who thought being pretty was her full-time job. It's as if she has substituted a movie-star pose for acting.

Carrying an off-screen persona into movies often works, of course. It does for Mr. Vaughn, whose regular-guy routine, the working-class demeanor and untoned bod, suits his "Break-Up" role. But even if we assume that the characters' romance was an upscale-downscale attraction of opposites, Ms. Aniston's gleaming self-assurance in the film is intrusive. After the breakup and a supposedly excruciating night, she arrives at the art gallery where she works and is told by her style-conscious boss (Judy Davis) to go home because she looks terrible. Except she doesn't look anything like terrible; she just has her hair pulled back in a very chic ponytail.

And in the long run, all that coyness about her possible relationship with Mr. Vaughn may turn out to be a misbegotten strategy, echoing the coolness and emotional reserve of her characters. Maybe she does want to keep her private life private, but the evasions have simply ginned up curiosity, which isn't the same as affection. Audiences like to feel a warm connection to their movie stars, like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts. It's an illusion, but a comforting one.

The relationship with Mr. Vaughn itself may have cost Ms. Aniston sympathy. In terms of her image it doesn't even matter if that relationship exists; the public believes it does. And while replacing Mr. Pitt with a new trophy guy would have seemed like vindication for the wounded princess, instead she has reached beneath her on the celebrity food chain. Mr. Vaughn seems smarter than his on-screen persona, and his mega-hit "Wedding Crashers" gave him some Hollywood clout. Still, nobody says, How did she get him? Just the opposite.

To have a (possible) private relationship dissected so brutally by the public seems unfair, but then every star is complicit in constructing a public image. Some are just better at it than others. So, with her misguided media strategy, Ms. Aniston gives television interviews about the yummy hot dogs in Chicago, where "The Break-Up" was shot (and which, she doesn't add but people know, is Mr. Vaughn's hometown). The audience sees that she has not turned a frog into a prince; she has joined him down on the lily pad. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, perfecting their mastery of the media, have gone from adopting children to adopting a whole country, Namibia. Remarkably, the press has swooned for this stunt, recasting the cad and the femme fatale as humanitarians instead of two people who brought along their Los Angeles obstetrician and who knows how many other loyal retainers to Africa to stage-manage their baby's birth.

No actor who made $18.5 million last year, as Ms. Aniston reportedly did, can be called a failure. But her biggest box-office success, "Bruce Almighty," the movie that gives Jim Carrey God-like powers, wasn't really her film; "The Break-Up" belongs to the two-headed Vaughn-Aniston box-office anomaly. "The Good Girl" was hers. As an unhappily married woman who works at a discount store and is attracted to a younger man, she did more than pull her hair back; she disappeared into the role and made that woman understandable, believable and moving. "The Break-Up" won't be her last chance to create such a commanding presence, but it doesn't help, and it leaves fans of her real acting talent with a whole new Team Aniston goal to root for.