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As The Good Girl’s Justine shuffles listlessly toward the forlorn, dust-blown entrance to the Retail Rodeo, her voice-over begins to talk about the special cell in the prison of life reserved for women. Any student of literature knows that Justines are made to be put upon and, in so being, to be sexually liberated. Screenwriter Mike White, however, evinces not only a Sadean contempt for the average person’s ideals of morality but also a postmodernist’s refusal to respect the text. So the question is not how Justine (Jennifer Aniston) will escape her prison, but how she’ll endure it—possibly by dusting off its mantelpiece and setting up her Precious Moments collection.

In The Good Girl, as in the creepy Chuck & Buck, the small shocks of White’s characters’ shifting motivations are more satisfying than the faint sneer with which he regards their sad little lives. Justine could not be more woebegone if she were a Margaret Keane painting. Married to a blue-collar lug (John C. Reilly) more interested in getting high than getting paid, working at the cosmetics counter of an anonymous maximart in a town too crummy for a Wal-Mart, she’s trapped in a small psychological space mocked by the open Texas landscape around her. Leaving the task of giving free makeovers to her perky colleague Gwen (Deborah Rush), an overprocessed, still-got-my-figure Rangerette of a certain age, Justine catches the puppy eyes of a new employee, ostentatiously moody Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal).

What the married Justine, who’s too young for a drudge’s life, and the teenage Holden, who’s world-weary before his time, have in common is a vast misunderstanding of unhappiness. Susceptible and uneducated, Justine is defenseless before Holden’s brooding stance. She doesn’t know how to front being unhappy and can’t imagine why anyone would bother. He doesn’t know what

real misery is, or how much Justine has to lose by admiring him.

The two embark on a frenzied affair made all the more poignant by its implausibility: The Good Girl’s weird casting creates a sort of buffer zone between its principals even when they’re tearing off each others’ clothes in a car. Soon enough, Justine is in big trouble—not the stupidly contrived clue-scattering trouble of, say, Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, with Diane Lane provocatively leaving her frillies about, but real window-peering, blackmailing, small-town trouble. She has been a good girl—limited, accepting—for so long that she has no sense of a moral continuum; the affair is the worst thing she’s ever done, so what difference would a little murder, a little holdup, and a little fugitiving make?

Because Justine is basically sensible, she does none of these things—that’s one of White’s surprises. In fact, Holden’s melodramatic anguish becomes another male burden she’s forced to carry, along with the dead weight of her husband and his high-school-hangover friendship with best pal Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson, looking exactly like one of those snakehead fish), and the attentions of a God-bothering store guard.

Aniston was purported to have been completely de-Rachelized for this role, and she is blessedly free from TV tics. She holds her face still, with her lower lip thrust out pensively, and tamps down the shrugging, hand-waving eagerness that comes too naturally to her. But when Justine settles into a distracted fog as the affair makes her simple life exhaustingly complicated, Aniston lacks the resources to show that there’s still someone in there. She just sits, like a stringless marionette, until interaction with another actor reanimates her. Nonetheless, Aniston holds her own against a strong cast—particularly Reilly, whose mouth-breathing Phil reveals a certain type of macho vulnerability and a hopelessness as valid as Justine’s own. And director Miguel Arteta (who also worked with White on Chuck & Buck) uses clever lighting and slight underexposure to give the actors’ faces an interesting texture and make their moist eyes—especially Gyllenhaal’s almost obscenely expressive ones—pop and glow.

White and Arteta’s construction of the Retail Rodeo habitat, however, is too farcical for plausibility in such a low-key, ambiguous story. They give the minimum-wagers all the zingy lines, casting that precious screen commodity Zooey Deschanel as a Gothed-out teen who uses the store’s PA system to poke snarky fun at the zombielike shoppers and White himself as the bug-eyed security guard whose inveiglings that Justine join his Bible group merely expose what Hollywood types, however indie, think of flyover-country Christians. (“We’re not interested in scaring people,” he tells Justine, “other than the usual ways.”) Holden’s uptight parents seem to exist only to be tightly wound foils for their passion-crazed son. (Do they really spend every waking minute sitting erect on the couch in full business dress staring into space?) Better developed and more effective are the small, wordless moments between Holden and Justine whenever their basic decency makes messy hash of the affair they believe is sweeping them away. Due to their lack of planning, they end up regulars in a room at the Glen Capri Motel, which is exactly as charmless as it sounds, and when they walk in for the first time, they look around the place as if acquainting themselves with the scratchy lampshades might make it feel like home.

Justine is an unholy mess for such vague reasons that her descent into the hell mouth sometimes looks like sheer willfulness—in itself an interesting idea. The Good Girl has a shambling pace and numerous gorgeous little jokes, although some of the humor comes at the price of sending up the dullards who don’t get it. To its credit, the script maintains that the leads’ tragedy is in trying to create a world in which they get everything about each other, and crossing wires every time. For Justine, who isn’t really a plagued heroine of erotic fiction but a sad kid who married too soon, and Holden, who isn’t really a tormented teen but a disturbed jerk, the worst part of life in the microcosm of the Retail Rodeo isn’t the long hours or stultifying sameness—it’s that it doesn’t allow them to be their fantasy selves. CP