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*The Good Girl (R)
Fox Searchlight

Critics who like Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl tend to hold her role as Justine, a bored, disaffected young woman stuck in a rotten job and stalled in a lifeless marriage, above and apart from her better-known depiction of Rachel in the television comedy Friends, declaring that this is a huge and welcome departure for the popular actress. But Friends fans (or those who will admit to being fans) know that Aniston's best moments as Rachel come when she lets the character's spoiled, pouty side shine through. Rachel can be a real bitch, downright flinty when things aren't going her way, and Aniston's ability to remain attractive while playing a self-absorbed brat is nothing to sniff at.

In The Good Girl, she has found the perfect role to show off that quality while downplaying her natural glamour. Justine Last is a cosmetics clerk at the Retail Rodeo, a generic big-box discount store in an unnamed Texas town where the big event of the week is Couples Bible Study. Her husband Phil (John C. Reilly) is a pot-smoking house painter who'd rather be sitting on the couch watching TV with his buddy Bubba (Tim Blake-Nelson). Phil's sweet but clueless. When a good-looking, brooding young man who reads The Catcher in the Rye and calls himself Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows up at the Rodeo's cashier's station one day, Justine's interest is spurred. Here's someone who appears to hate the world as much as she does.

Justine and Holden embark on a love affair that we know is doomed from the beginning -- she's too old and settled for him; he's too desperate for her. Meanwhile, she and Phil are trying to get pregnant, Bubba is lusting after her, and things at work are falling apart. All the drama is low-key and The Good Girl turns out to be a very effective black comedy, playing on the lock-step quality of life in the workaday world with no hope -- or dream -- of escape.

Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White (Chuck & Buck) perfectly capture a tone of listlessness and quiet desperation, and the entire cast is great at sustaining the mood. White is creepy and hilarious as the store security guard and resident proselytizer. Zooey Deschanel is wonderful as Justine's co-worker Cheryl who masterfully plays off the obliviousness of most everyone, especially the Retail Rodeo customers.

The Good Girl is funny without taking cheap shots. Its honesty is its strongest quality -- especially the pained honesty of Justine who must finally decide whether she really wants to escape after all.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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