Good Girl

 Gen-X-Review-Good-Girl-2002Have you ever wondered about the pretty, sad girls you sometimes pass on your way to the candy isle? The ones who seem to be looking into a different world where at least some of their dreams have come true?

Everyone has stories and sometimes these personal narratives are less about what actually happened than what we let slip through our hands.

The Good Girl stars Jennifer Aniston as Justine, as 30-year-old woman trapped in a small Texas city working as a make-up girl in a department store. She’s married to a stoner painter named Phil (John C. Reilly), lives in a house in constant disrepair, and secretly pines away for, well, anything: Love, oblivion, freedom, death... Anything that transports her from her dreary, lower-middle-class life.

Justine and Phil are stuck in the middle of nowhere. Theirs is a hollow world where people live only out of habit, a world of zombies going through the motions. Applying make-up to the faceless faces of her customers, Justine is alone with her thoughts. Phil can’t go one night without getting baked and relives the same unsatisfying couch conference with his buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) over and over again.

“Everything turns to sh*#,” Justine says one night when Phil and Bubba ruin her living room couch. And she’s right. Her life is in decline at 30 and the best she can hope for is an occasional episode of Oprah to cheer her up.

Until Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps through the automatic doors of the Retail Rodeo Justine works at.

Eight years Justine’s junior, Holden is out of place among the decay of the department store. He is named after Holden Caulfield from Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and considers himself a tortured writer. He represents freedom to Justine and the two begin making eyes at one another from over the candy counter and Slim Jim display.

The Good Girl is about the desperate little things we do for happiness, the silly ways we try to deceive ourselves, and the hard choices we make that keep us trapped forever.

Holden is romantic and disturbed, and as the low-rent love affair progresses Justine wonders if he’s just a boy or a demon. Love is strange sometimes and Justine and Holden’s relationship is exciting, crazy, impulsive and dangerous. It colors the drab city they live in, changing the complexion of the store room where they meet and making the everyday dreary landscape seem somehow magical.

But Justine doesn’t completely believe in its reality. Is she simply a white trash Madam Bovary compelled by the melodrama of the situation? Is her relationship with Holden a viable alternative to the life that she and Phil have made or just an interesting fiction? Everyone wants to escape their lives, but Justine doesn’t want to deceive herself like Phil has, by creating smoke dreams from pot, or follow Holden’s example and create an imaginary persona to hide behind.

Men are idiots, it’s true, and Justine gets stronger as she learns how to negotiate their desires. Every choice might be tragic, but it’s better to face your problems than to ignore or reimagine them. If Justine doesn’t have the power to change her life, can she learn how to reimagine her own reality and make it something of her own creation?

The cast of characters feels very real, as though their faces have been peeled off of a late-night visit to Denny’s. Shuffling by on her way to the hardware isle, Aniston looks every bit of the part of Justine, proving how lovely ordinary people can be when in love. Look up from your morning paper at your favorite breakfast joint or stare into the eyes of that person selling you your dish detergent, cat litter or McMeal and you just might see a Justine -- if you’re lucky.

The Good Girl is evocative and beautiful, full of the kind of ordinary poetry that has the power to change our lives - if we dare to admit that the power is ours.



Gen X review possessionHistory is a great fiction, especially when it turns out to be true.

The new film Possession explores the enduring power of love, art and our need to find our own stories. Set in contemporary and Victorian Europe, the film follows 30-something academic Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) as he tries to unravel the romantic life of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). Roland is a literary Marlboro Man, a tweedy American poet in that awkward phase between professional academia and idyllic wanderlust.

When he comes across two hand-written, personal love letters by Randolph to a supposed lesbian poetess -- Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) -- in a book of poetry at the British Museum in London,
Roland decides to contact a professor working in another department to help him uncover the truth about Randolph and Christabel.

Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a Nancy Drew who went to grad school, got a nose job and bleached her hair. She went into the Women’s Studies program, focused on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and learned the names of every designer coffee ever invented. One day Nancy, er Maud I mean, meets Roland, a handsome, tortured poet looking for a voice, a dashing, self-loathing, creative sort of gent who wore woolen sweaters, tweed jackets and black turtle necks...

Together they unknowingly embark on a quest to rediscover the power of language. (After all, we cultural theorists have done everything possible to diminish the power of language. Why do we torture the things we love?) They quote Freud, Yates and Calvin Klein with equal fluidity, like any good modern English scholar. They’re not only solving this mystery -- they’re also trying to find a love story they can believe in.

Drawn into the narrative of these other people, Roland and Maud learn to trust their own actions. The act of reading and interpreting Randolph and Christabel’s letters becomes a means of understanding themselves, understanding the simple poetry at work in their own lives. The couple is fine when they’re working at understanding the text, but without the structure of writing, in the real world, they fumble kisses, misjudge one another and drive each other mad, like most of us.

The mystery of poetry and love is at least as powerful as the mystery of death. Interpretation and investigation are closely linked to one another and anyone even remotely familiar with literary criticism knows that art is a kind of riddle. The critic pulls apart words and sentence structures, reads beyond the text, makes the intuitive leaps of faith necessary to truly understand a work of art. Like a detective, he or she ferrets out clues, tries to get inside the mind of the madman...

The true reading is always a personal fiction connecting the author to the reader, bringing the social material object -- the poem, for example -- into the highly psychological and emotional world of imagination and interpretation. Connecting the dots is sometimes as much about the person tying stars together as the stars themselves, and any work of art worth its salt teaches us as much about ourselves as the person who wrote it.

“We came to investigate them, not ourselves,” Maud says, knowing full well that to read is to uncover
secret parts of your self. Our own history is often revealed in the actions of others or in the way we interpret signs.

We are the words we speak, but sometimes language gets in the way, too. Randolph and Christabel’s relationship is both sweet and sad, because the letters that bring them together also tears them apart. Following the paper trail left behind, Roland and Maud try to re-imagine what went wrong, but their own love affair must develop in real time. Their story must be their own, and it must be as simple and lovely as a haiku.

Like all precious things, Possession is delicate and fragile. It’s hard to resist the urge to poke fun of the film’s conceit in an age that transforms good poetry into cheap ads and relishes the opportunity to bring high art as low as possible. It’s far too easy to draw a mustache over the Mona Lisa, and ruining something this fine would be simple, but it wouldn’t be smart.

Sometimes you just need to close a book to really enjoy its ending.

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Want another opinion? Roger Ebert is one of my favorite reviewers and a personal hero.

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