Hungry Hearts

"Madame Bovary c'est moi," her creator, Gustave Flaubert, is supposed to have said. To which Jennifer Aniston can now add, "Me too." The Good Girl, an entertaining indie package shown to some acclaim last January at Sundance, allows our favorite Friend to model a stylish denim wardrobe and stolidly act out in the part of a frustrated, adulterous East Texas wife.

Directed by Miguel Arteta from Mike White's script, The Good Girlis at once romantic and snide. Sales clerk Justine (Aniston) is married to Phil (John C. Reilly), a good-natured, pot-smoking house painter who spends most of his time watching TV cartoons with his obnoxiously leering bud Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson); Justine, meanwhile, mainly watches the new cashier at the entropic drive-in department store where she works. Never less than watchable herself, she's the Emma B of the Kmart (known here as Retail Rodeo), and her Leon Dupuis is an intensely disheveled young college dropout who calls himself Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) and ponders his well-thumbed copy of Catcher in the Rye between customers.

Arteta and White don't have much faith in the Texas education system. Justine seems to have never heard of the J.D. Salinger book, but she's flattered to partake in Holden's adolescent angst—intrigued by the would-be writer's smoldering confidence that people "don't get" him and, what's more, people "don't get" her either. If The Good Girl were a film noir (which, in a way, it is), Holden would be the unstable femme fatale and Justine the middle-class patsy looking to crash out of a humdrum existence. This good girl is trapped in a world of crazies and idiots. To underline the point, there's a sign under the store manager's station, "Big White Dog Lost." As suggested by the wacky free associations of Zooey Deschanel's goofball customer service rep and the godlike pronouncements of John Carroll Lynch's store manager—not to mention the presence of characters named Bubba and Holden—The Good Girl is even more cartoon-like than the last, somewhat slapdash Arteta-and-White opus, Chuck & Buck. As scarily pale as some light-deprived underwater creature, White himself plays the Retail Rodeo security guard trying to recruit Justine for his Bible group.

Looking to crash out of a humdrum existence: Aniston with Reilly in The Good Girl
photo: Dale Robinette
Looking to crash out of a humdrum existence: Aniston with Reilly in The Good Girl

Details

The Good Girl
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Written by Mike White
Fox Searchlight

Blood Work
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Brian Helgeland, from the novel by Michael Connelly
Warner Bros.
Opens August 9

Secret Ballot
Written and directed by Babak Payami
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens August 9 at the Quad

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Like Chuck & Buck, The Good Girlis a droll, well-acted, character-driven comedy with unexpected deposits of feeling. Too good for this sub-suburban mess, Justine ricochets from one emotional crisis—and one dumb selfish male—to the next. (Although the movie's most reasonable character, she's none too bright either.) As much icon as performer, Aniston is an actress whose poised lack of spontaneity would seem to be a factor of her preternatural pertness and superlative grooming. Here, she holds her crinkly, eye-batting, television-honed mannerisms in check—perhaps focusing her calculated sitcom presence on the care and maintenance of a flat, nasal delivery. The Good Girl is a small movie, but surrounded as it is by more extravagant hamming, the star's constricted performance gives it a particular pathos.

For his part, Gyllenhaal appears as a more unbalanced version of the avid tadpole he played in Lovely & Amazing. Both movies feature scenes in which the young lover awkwardly guides an older woman through the parental foyer upstairs to the teenage mise-en-scène of his debris-strewn bedroom. (The instance in The Good Girl struck me as funnier, but then, it's the one I saw first.) Justine is puzzled to observe that Holden's parents refer to him as Tom. "That's my slave name," he curtly explains. The Good Girl gives the talented Gyllenhaal more space to develop his hunched, wild-eyed, slack-jawed ardency. It's exciting, as well as touching, when Justine takes this brooding puppy to a motel—and also a bit dangerous. "I just want to knock your head open and see what's inside," he enthuses afterward.

The Good Girl, no less than Chuck & Buck, is ultimately the story of a mad passion. Almost behind its own back, the story of Justine's reckless affair becomes an all-American tale of crime, violence, blackmail, obsession, and betrayal. Events take a swerve toward the serious—but not entirely. Arteta and White have created an impacted road film, or maybe an ironic outlaw ballad. The fake sincerity of the unhappy "happy ending" is clinched by Gillian Welch's twangy closing-credit rendition of the venerable bad-man ballad "Railroad Bill." It's exit music for a movie where there is none.


More straightforward summer action may be found in the company of Clint Eastwood's good (old) boy. Despite a fanciful hook, Eastwood's Blood Work is a bracingly no-nonsense, highly professional policier—as proudly old-fashioned as its curmudgeon hero. Continuing to contemplate his own mortality, Eastwood casts himself as a celebrity FBI agent who suffers a coronary on the job, receives a heart transplant, and emerges from his houseboat retirement once he discovers that his donor was the victim of an unsolved murder.

Everyone is forever telling the ornery old cuss that he looks like shit, but of course, the 70-ish Eastwood is fabulously trim. (Thanks to the frequent examinations administered by his doctor, Anjelica Huston, the star extensively models his cosmetically scarred torso.) A new ticker not only gives the ex-G-man a new lease on life—and a reason for living—but also provides Blood Work with an unending source of metaphor. Perhaps under the influence of his new corazón, Eastwood's character goes intuitive, looking for connections between this case and the so-called Code Killer who'd been obsessed with him. "Now the love letters are going to start," he mutters once it becomes apparent that there's a secret sharer in the equation.

As tin woodsman Eastwood supplies the movie's heart, Jeff Daniels brings a disorienting touch of dumb-and-dumberness to the proceedings, playing the ultimate sidekick from hell: "Don't any clues lead to the beach?" Paul Rodriguez adds heat as a volatile police detective, with dame of mystery Wanda De Jesus on hand to complete the ethnic subtext characteristic of Eastwood's work since his late-'60s westerns. The protag's you-know-what is in the right place, although structurally speaking, Blood Work is founded on the hero-villain doubling that may be found in Eastwood's cop films from Dirty Harry through Tightrope to In the Line of Fire.

Moody and succinct, Blood Work cuts quicker to the chase than the star's recent genre films. It's also exceedingly well shot by Tom Sterns, a first-time cinematographer but longtime cowhand at Eastwood's Malpaso production company. The climactic shipboard action sequence is considerably helped by Stern's use of guttering, reflected lights to create a shadow play, scored by the clank and complaint of rusted metal.




The latest bulletin from the land of allegory, a/k/a Iran, Babak Payami's Secret Ballot unfolds on the Persian Gulf resort island of Kish, against the elemental desert-island landscape familiar from last year's art-house hit The Day I Became a Woman. Secret Ballot, which is also derived from a story by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is a subtler piece of work. On national election day, a ballot box parachutes down from the sky, and a bemused young soldier whose normal routine is guarding the deserted beach gets assigned to accompany a government bureaucrat in gathering the votes. To his ill-concealed amazement, the official turns out to be female—a likably innocent enthusiast who arrives from the city in a cumbersome full-length chador.
Together, this odd couple chase down voters—sometimes literally—by jeep and, at one point, by boat. The bemused, albeit loquacious, Sergeant Rockhead plays peasant Sancho Panza to the idealistic agent's earnest Quixote as she searches for ballots, cheerfully copes with unanswerable questions regarding the rules for voting, attempts to navigate the male world of the local cemetery, and patiently explains that God is not an "approved" candidate. Methodical, measured, and gently tedious in its comedy, Secret Ballot is a purposefully reductive movie—which may be why it's so successful at lodging itself in the brain. The bureaucrat's persistence is mirrored by the filmmaker's. The long takes, middle-distance framing, and generally static camera suggest a form of "ABC art." So does the premise. How many possible variations can Payami work on the situation? Secret Ballot is didactic in a peculiar, teasing fashion. Is the voting an empty ritual? An exercise in futility? Is this a satire of Iranian democracy or does it question the idea of democracy itself? Perhaps this intelligent and acute filmmaker would like to observe our next election in Florida.
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