The Good Girl
dir. Miguel Arteta Opens
Fri Aug 16
Various Theaters

When it comes to deep, dark cinematic comedy--the kind that makes you want to laugh and weep and squirm out of your skin at the same time--Miguel Arteta and Mike White have cornered the market. 2000's Chuck & Buck found the director/writer team chronicling the unlikely, unrequited love of a developmentally arrested man-child for his long-lost boyhood friend; Arteta and White (who also starred) received well-deserved mountains of critical praise for the film. Now there's The Good Girl (the rich new film written by White, directed by Arteta, and starring Jennifer Aniston), which explores similarly perverse terrain--the soul of a woman trapped by fate and circumstance, driven to commit acts of deeply iffy morality and legality.

"Basically, Mike and I deal in lovingly misguided characters," says Arteta. "These are people who make the worst possible choices, but for the best possible reasons." Arteta has firsthand knowledge of the plight of the well-intentioned outsider. After growing up in Puerto Rico, his family moved to Costa Rica, where young Miguel was soon booted out of his high school. "I had an American girlfriend, which didn't go over well," says Arteta. "Plus, we never went to class." Eventually Miguel landed at a Boston boarding school, where he made up his lost high-school years and first picked up a video camera. "People related better to my short films than to my broken English," he says.

On the opposite coast, Mike White had his own struggles. Having finished the script for Chuck & Buck (with no producer in sight), White was out of work, in debt, and "just stalking the streets of L.A., hating the world," says Arteta. Out of this darkness came the script for The Good Girl, whose primary character, Justine, embodied White's view of "life as a dead end."

White's collaboration with Arteta on Chuck & Buck would soon enough turn his fortune around, but the plight of The Good Girl's Justine remained as dark and twisted as ever. When it came time to cast the role, Arteta and White "bandied about the names of the usual indie actresses" until Mike White offered up the possibility of Jennifer Aniston. "A light went off," says Arteta. "We both thought it would be so mischievous and fun to see her doing these crooked, insane things."

Happily, Aniston agreed. "After eight years of Friends she was up for doing something different," Arteta says.

"Something different" is an understatement. Trapped in a dead-end job, torn between her pot-headed husband and her hot-headed young lover, the stoically desperate Justine is as far from Friends' Rachel Green as you can get without switching species. What's more, Aniston aces the role, bringing a beautifully understated gravity to the character Mike White has called "a present-day, suburban Emma Bovary."

"In the film, Justine makes so many ambiguous choices, and there are so many twists and turns," Arteta says. "But Jennifer's approachability makes the audience not question the decisions she's making as she's making them."

Aniston is in the good company of what Arteta describes as a "once-in-a-lifetime dream cast." As Justine's willfully doomed young lover, doe-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal continues his reign as Generation Y's savviest purveyor of post-adolescent angst, while John C. Reilly scores another supporting-role home run as Justine's large-hearted, soft-headed husband. Having long dreamt of working with Reilly, Arteta is effusive in his praise of the actor he considers "the John Wayne of independent film": "When he comes onscreen, he doesn't need to say much. You just get it."

Rounding out The Good Girl's dream cast is Tim Blake Nelson, whose ostensibly secondary character provides the film's most surprising and affecting moments, and Mike White himself, who moonlights on his screenwriter duties by playing Corny, a born-again Christian with some decidedly creepy habits.

In Chuck & Buck, White and Arteta had the benefit of a previously unheard-of cinematic hero. With The Good Girl, they're dealing with a much more recognizable character type, and Arteta was rigorous about rendering Justine's low-rent suburban wasteland with as little cliché and patronizing romance as possible, going so far as to underexpose the film stock to "de-glamorize" both Aniston and her character's colorless world.

In the end, Arteta characterizes The Good Girl as "a comic ode to depression." He goes on to say, "Watching this movie being performed, I learned that depression has a lot to do with your fantasy life. If you have an unhealthy, unrealistic fantasy life, you'll always feel that you're at the wrong place in your life, that where you are is no good. Really, these movies are like free therapy for me."