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movies: You Go, Girl

Jennifer Anniston steps from behind her trademark TV role and proves she can act in the entertaining but mixed indie drama "The Good Girl."

Working from a screenplay by Mike White (with whom Arteta previously collaborated on the affecting but extremely disturbing "Chuck and Buck"), Arteta has fashioned a film populated with fine actors and nicely tuned dialogue. But throughout "The Good Girl," there's this subtle but nagging hint of condescension — for both his characters and the dramatic emotional course he and White have set them upon.

Justine's despair, we soon see, springs from her surroundings: The Retail Rodeo is a psyche-numbing place, with dim or scuzzy co-workers who fill their days talking their fellow small-town stereotypes into buying cheap, synthetic-looking merchandise they don't need.

Her home life isn't much better or much different. Hubby Phil (John C. Reilly), and his ever-present best bud, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), are a pair of blue-collar dolts with a set routine that they've fooled themselves into believing is a life. The characters with any semblance of intelligence are miserable; those who are happy are made to appear foolish and Arteta encourages us to laugh at them.

Justine, who appears to have few friends and even less pleasure in her life, soon catches the eye of Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal, an unkempt, scratchy-voiced dreamboat), a young co-worker who still has big dreams and bigger ideas. The unlikely pair fall into an equally uneasy affair. Swiftly, Justine's dull but ordered existence becomes very complicated and her behavior increasingly odd.

Aniston has plenty of "mannered" baggage to contend with here, which includes but sadly is not limited to, the soft twang in Justine's voice or her odd flat-footed walk with shoulders so hunched and slumped we know she must be carrying the unseen weight of the world there. Nonetheless, Anniston manages also to be appealing and sweetly effective as this small-town, post-feminist Madame Bovary.

If the movie's title didn't tip you off, then its seemingly endless array of close-up shots of Justine's dejected face should — "The Good Girl" is Anniston's movie. Plain and simple. That trademark mane is pulled unceremoniously back in a barely contained ponytail, but despite this, this small-town potboiler is all about Jennifer.

Thankfully, the movie's supporting cast overflows with good character actors who can deftly carve out a memorable character with just a few lines or a few short but telling scenes. Zooey Deschanel ("Almost Famous"), in particular, steals scenes as a Justine co-worker who's found a way to enjoy her work.

Amidst the inexpensive beige furniture in Justine's living room sits a faux Tiffany lamp, as if she'd bought it in a vain attempt to bring beauty into her home, but can't quite lift the room above its blinding blandness. It's a poignant grace note that soon becomes a telling metaphor for "The Good Girl" as a whole: Even the finest cast can't rise above a story suffering a dramatic lack of heart.

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