Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:10 pm 
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Arteta and Whie craft a warmer, more accessible satire this time

In 'The Good Girl' Miguel Arteta and his writing collaborator for 'Chuck and Buck,' Mike White, have forged a real winner. 'Chuck and Buck' grew out of a single idea carried too far: a homely gay man seeks out an old friend whom he played around with sexually as a boy, but who's now straight, successful, and good-looking. The embarrassment of this situation was relentlessly pursued. The main character and the only one seen in depth was Buck, played by Mike White himself, a man of modest acting skills who's goofy looking in real life and can appear strange and downright creepy on camera. It was as if White dared the audience to identify with him or even to put up with him.

'The Good Girl' is worlds away from this because it has not only a palpable milieu but engaging characters who are simple-minded and limited but still sympathetic. White has largely switched from ideas to people and forged something that genre-wise is more complex. He's still taking a geeky view of life as something you never quite know whether to laugh or cry or spit at, but he's got a better story and better actors, and Arteta as a director may have learned a thing or two as well. His first effort, 'Star Maps,' seemed downright amateurish. 'Chuck and Buck' just didn't come off. 'The Good Girl' works because we're allowed to laugh a lot without losing our interest in the people or finding them the least bit repulsive or inauthentic.

In 'The Good Girl' a rural East Texas Emma Bovary named Justine Last, married to stoner housepainter Phil, has a wild secret affair with her cohort at Retail Rodeo, Holden, a downbeat and desperate would-be writer who's ten years younger. Instead of meeting Emma's end, Justine winds up going back to Phil, and Holden goes up in smoke. Justine has chosen to be a 'good girl.' Phil is played by veteran John C. Reilly -- who was in 'American Graffitti' and 'Magnolia' -- with a true-blue simplicity and conviction that make you feel there's hope for him. Reilly and the others evoke a trailer park kind of poor white world that recalls Paul Le Mat's Melvin in Jonathan Demme's classic 'Melvin and Howard.'

Holden ('Tom's my slave name,' he tells Justine when she comes to his room) is another doomed self-absorbed youth role, more disheveled this time, for the talented Jake Gyllenhaal. This time he's adopted a little shrunken countrified voice that makes him seem more than slightly foolish, and his wild behavior shows us he's just a dangerous child, but his big hangdog brooding eyes and pouty lips aren't altogether silly because he's too hunky and handsome for that. When he and Justine first get it on in bed it seems pretty exciting, but borderline violent. This is a perfect role for Jake, who shone in 'Donnie Darko' and has just been seen in a similar but smaller role in Nicole Holofcener's 'Lovely and Amazing.'

Jennifer Anniston (of 'Friends' fame) as Justine has a numb, stoical restraint that makes her the linchpin of the piece. She may not be very bright, but she is brave. Tim Blake Nelson as Bubba, Phil's painting and smoking partner, tunes up the comedy by his twangy delivery of oneliners in the early scenes. Everyone's a bit deadpan at first and this builds our sense of how boring their lives are but also makes the dialogue funnier. Nelson (one of the principals of 'O Brother Where Art Thou?') particularly has the ability to skate with unfailing accuracy along the thin edge between redneck caricature and sympathetic portrait.

Like Laura Linney's Sammy in 'You Can Count on Me,' Justine realizes she's being crazy and tries to no particular effect to use religion as a corrective. Unlike Sammy she is childless and there's a suspicion that Phil's heavy drug use has lowered his sperm count. This leads to trouble when Justine gets pregnant. As the plot thickens White's writing continues to skirt the line between seriousness and play. We have a guilty giggle when Justine dumps her seriously ill coworker Gwen (Deborah Rush) at Emergency and rushes off for a tryst with Holden at the motel. Bubba gets more deeply involved and this is both comic and sadly touching.

The embarrassment of 'Chuck and Buck' has turned largely to sympathetic laughter. You could call this character-driven satire, but it takes a film noir twist, and the satire blends with romance and the comic book redneck geekiness carries a moral message. It can turn mushy at the end and accept what it mocked just as Abrams and Broder's 'Pumpkin' does.

The Kmart-esque Retail Rodeo itself is a palpable presence with its big over-lit space and announcements to the team. The Rodeo storeroom is where Justine and Holden have their riskiest couplings. White has a relatively minor role this time as a Bible-thumping security guard. (Since he's the son of a fundamentalist Christian preacher in real life, this little role has personal resonance.) The store becomes a stage as we keep coming back to it to watch Zooey Descharnel's Cheryl do clownish facial makeovers on elderly women, hear John Carroll Lynch as Jack Field, Your Store Manager, make lugubrious announcements on the PA system, or witness Justine and Holden ogling each other or humping in the storeroom. After each of two deaths Jack Field makes a formal announcement on the PA system followed by an appropriate tune: 'This one's for you...' The Retail Rodeo scenes would be terrifying if they weren't so comic and sad. The town is called Wasteland, Texas. Isn't that hilarious?

The plot has some real momentum as the affair gets more exposed and Holden turns into a criminal. It's not that there are a lot of surprises, but fate takes its course too fast to bore anyone and misdeeds lead to inevitable consequences. Arteta and White may just be playing around, but they're playing with good raw materials this time.

August 18, 2002

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