Breaking Out

Jennifer Aniston does time in writer Mike White's new prison movie

 <i>The Good Girl</i>
The Good Girl

A good girl doesn't usually tell lies, or bed barely legal boys in motel rooms rented by the hour, or leave friends to die alone, but a good girl under duress can only stay good for so long. Ask Ibsen or Flaubert. Mike White did. His screenplay for The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston, was heavily influenced by both authors' portraits of decent women undone by the everlasting ennui of their lives, by that most desolate of refrains: "Is this all there is?"

Aniston's Justine wakes every morning to work the make-up counter at the dippy Retail Rodeo in a generic Texas town, comes home every evening to a dopey husband (John C. Reilly) who has beer-bonged his sperm unusable. Before this all became so routine, Justine could get by on daydreams of something better, but now -- "Now I don't even know what to imagine anymore."

In short, she is trapped. White, whose writing credits include Chuck & Buck (his first collaboration with Good Girl director Miguel Arteta) and TV's Freaks and Geeks and Pasadena, explains that he "wanted to write a prison movie, and it felt like the Retail Rodeo was the perfect place to set [it]." At the time he was writing the script, White was trapped, too.

"I was in a lot of debt, living off credit cards, just trying to figure out how to write my way out of it. I was in a place like where [Justine] is in the beginning of the movie, [wondering] 'Is this all there is? How do I get out of here?' I guess I was kind of depressed."

No kidding. Well, he might be -- the Pasadena-born/bred/still-based writer has a way of mining perversion for punchlines. If The Good Girl plays out under a black cloud, then the silver lining is the film's black comic bite. White's the first person to make a case for the levity of a laugh: "The dramatic version of this movie is not a movie I would want to see. It would be too unpleasant." The desperation of Justine's situation -- a dead-end job in a dead-end marriage in a dead-end town -- is mellowed by White's dead-on depiction of Justine's environs, from Diet Cherry Cokes and Chuck E. Cheese's to a downhome vernacular that counts "doohickey" as a viable noun. Some critics have pointed to the script as evidence that White doesn't "feel the pain of the underclass," a complaint the self-professed child of "poor white trash" muses at. "Anyone who would actually make that argument is as patronizing as anyone who's making fun of [the lower-class]," concludes the writer, who has a small part in the film as a Bible-thumping security guard. "The people in this movie could inhabit any class, any world. I was trying to strip it down to its most elemental level."

White's characters have a push and pull effect on the audience -- they can trigger empathy, then disgust, in the time it takes to crack open one of those Diet Cherry Cokes. By the writer's own admission, the titular good girl "brings everyone down around her." The casting of Aniston -- prime time's golden girl -- both complicates and enriches the film. "If you had someone who was a little colder [than Aniston], it would have been a much less interesting movie. ... The thing about Jennifer is, there's something very likable and appealing about her. It confuses all the dark things that her character does throughout the movie."

Sure, they're dark, but what's a good girl under duress to do? Maybe stop trying to be a good girl and settle for being only human. end story

The Good Girl opens in Austin theatres on Friday. See Film Listings for review.

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