There’s life after Friends

“Tell me the truth, my lips are shrinking aren’t they? Getting thinner, more, like, pursed? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“Tell me the truth, my lips are shrinking aren’t they? Getting thinner, more, like, pursed? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Rated 3.0

Jennifer Aniston shows some acting muscle in The Good Girl, easily her best feature film work, and a nice departure for the Friends actress.

Aniston plays Justine, glum cashier at the Retail Rodeo, looking for a little excitement in her dreary life. Her husband Phil (the oh-so-good John C. Reilly) spends his time sitting his paint-stained ass down on her new couch, smoking pot and basically taking her for granted. She’s worked at the Retail Rodeo for as long as she can remember, and is not a practitioner of smiles and giggles. She displays an eternal scowl, a look far removed from that of characters Aniston has played in the past.

In walks Thomas (Jake Gyllenhaal), a much younger, even more depressed co-worker who sits around reading Catcher In the Rye and calling himself Holden. ("Tom is my slave name.") The two start a friendship that eventually leads to sex in the storage room, and their actions touch off a sequence of events that gets progressively inconvenient for Justine.

While this is a dark portrayal of infidelity and its perils, it is also often hilarious. Written by Mike White (Chuck and Buck), who also plays a security guard with a love of Bible study, the movie mixes a fair amount of big laughs into the morality tale. Especially funny are sarcastic and obscene announcements over the store intercom by a grouchy employee (Zooey Deschanel), the fate of a vegetarian who boasts about her smart eating and every moment between Reilly’s Jake and Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson of O Brother Where Art Thou?), his nosy best friend.

As Justine, Aniston is excellent, proving that she has a life in feature films after her TV sitcom. She displays a full range of emotions, making the gamble of straying so far from her “image” pay off. Justine is a sad woman, but has clearly chosen this life for herself. For the stretch of her life depicted in this film, she certainly makes some major mistakes.

Aniston does a good job generating sympathy for a character that behaves selfishly, even when her self-pitying behavior leads to tragedy. Many other actresses would’ve rendered Justine bland and unlikable. Aniston brings dimensions to her blandness, and doesn’t misstep once with her performance. It is wonderfully calibrated work.

Gyllenhaal played a different version of the younger lover in this year’s Lovely and Amazing, and while that was a good turn, I prefer his work in this film. Thomas is a depressed periodic drinker with tendencies towards rage and melancholia, a virtual smorgasbord for a young actor. Gylenhaal dives in with the reckless abandon of a young Dustin Hoffman. With this performance, and the upcoming Moonlight Mile (oddly enough, with Dustin Hoffman), Gyllenhaal is becoming a force to be reckoned with, although that name is a tongue twister.

The film seems to be sending a message to married couples that your spouse just might be the one you are supposed to be with, even if he or she is boring you to death at times. Its insights into relationships and marriage are nothing profound, but the underlying theme of forgiveness is an interesting one, rarely touched on with the good humor of this film. And as for its ability to move you, a speech Reilly gives toward the film’s end just might make you tear up.

The Good Girl isn’t a groundbreaking film by any means, but it is funny and loaded with fine performances by great actors. I imagine that its dark tone will keep it from being a box office extravaganza, but Aniston’s work will surely garner her some major industry respect. Not bad for the former star of The Leprechaun.