A Winning Jennifer Aniston Plays a Texan Emma Bovary

Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl , from a screenplay by Mike White (who also appears in the film), turns out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of this long, hot, harrowing summer. This is to say that the derisive premises of the movie’s plot and characterizations could have resulted in a sour experience for the viewer, were it not for the insightful, incisive direction, writing, acting, editing and cinematography, The film’s intonation, above all, lends dignity and depth to an array of otherwise laughable losers.

Jennifer Aniston’s Justine Last works at the makeup and makeover counter at the isolated, almost surreal Retail Rodeo, located in the middle of nowhere, presumably on the outskirts of Wasteland, Tex. Justine gets us on her side at the outset with a soulful narration in which she expresses a vague yearning to escape from her constricted existence, as if she were a Texan Emma Bovary. But with a married name like “Last,” what can you expect? Justine’s husband, Phil (John C. Reilly), is a house painter with a pot-smoking work buddy appropriately known as Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). We first see the doped-up duo sprawled on Justine’s brand-new, just-paid-up sofa watching television in their paint-splattered work clothes. This one image is almost too much; it seems designed to give Justine an incentive to run off with another man and join him in robbing banks. But our first impressions are misleading. Justine is neither Thelma nor Louise, and Phil turns out to be not a bad sort-more of a teddy bear, really.

For her part, Justine is called a “good girl” only once, and then, ironically, for an act of self-preserving betrayal. She is trapped, in a sense, but never quite trapped enough to break out into the completely unknown. She’s like most of us in that regard, but movies seldom take a chance on playing a hand like that. This is one of the things that makes The Good Girl feel realistic, and heartbreakingly different than other films of its ilk.

When Justine is first attracted to a young store cashier who calls himself Holden Worther (Jake Gyllenhall), she starts a conversation with him. He’s been reading his dog-eared copy of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye , and he tells her that he is named after Holden Caulfield. She later learns that his parents-with whom he still lives-call him Tom, which he dismisses as his “slave name.” Even before this, the danger signals are obvious for this highly romantic but completely unstable personality. Despite her doubts and fears and guilt, Justine drifts into a passionate affair with Holden. Her adultery soon becomes common knowledge around town. When Bubba discovers that Justine has been cheating on his best friend, Phil, he confesses his long-time infatuation with her and blackmails her into sleeping with him just once, to end his lifelong feeling of being a hopeless case. Justine complies with an air of practiced resignation, but this only causes other complications, which lead to a devastating dénouement.

There’s a complicated subplot in which Justine announces her long-sought pregnancy just before a medical examination reveals that Phil’s weakened sperm has made him infertile. Both Justine and Bubba comically hasten to reassure Phil that doctors don’t know everything . Truth is in short supply everywhere, but Phil still finds out about Justine’s infidelity, albeit accidentally, and then proceeds to jump to the wrong conclusion about the identity of her lover, having suspected neither Holden nor Bubba. The mishaps and misunderstandings sound like the stuff of French bedroom farce, but the film never loses its wistful feeling of seriousness.

François Truffaut once praised Jean Renoir for escaping the hackneyed triangle plot in French Cancan (1955) by giving his heroine, played by Françoise Arnoul, three men instead of two vying for her affections. But I doubt that either Truffaut or Renoir would have been pleased by Justine’s three lovers; between them, Phil, Holden and Bubba have all the savoir-faire of an amoeba.

I sincerely feel that, at this point, Ms. Aniston should be a shoo-in for an Oscar, even though her Justine misbehaves too much and suffers not nearly enough to warm Oscar’s heart. Some reviewers have already claimed that Zooey Deschanel’s Cheryl, Justine’s hilariously caustic co-worker, steals the picture. Ms. Deschanel gets some big laughs with her expert readings of Mr. White’s felicitous throwaway lines, but hers is a solo triumph in her self-enclosed vacuum. Ms. Aniston has the much harder task of setting up a whole ensemble of comic talents with her winsome attention. Mr. Reilly, Mr. Nelson and Mr. White, in particular, are immeasurably funnier playing off Ms. Aniston’s earnest straightness. Mr. White’s Bible-thumping creep, Corny, along with Deborah Rush’s joyous but freakishly ill-fated Gwen Jackson, John Carroll Lynch’s slyly supercilious Jack Field, the Your Store manager, and John Doe and Roxanne Hart as Holden’s cluelessly deadpan and deadly parents, all come to distinctive, idiosyncratic life in the many short takes that make up the movie’s marvelous mosaic.

This is the third collaboration of Mr. Arteta with producer Matthew Greenfield, and the second with screenwriter Mike White. What we have here is the beginning of a mini-dynasty of independent filmmaking, drawing on the synergy of low-cost theater, off-beat television and comparatively inexpensive cinema under the Sundance banner. Up to now, Mr. Arteta seemed to work mostly in the realm of the sexually and socially dysfunctional male, in such highly regarded works as Star Maps (1997) and Chuck and Buck (2000). After The Good Girl , his narrative range seems virtually limitless. Working with emotionally dangerous material, Mr. Arteta sails through without undue malice, reminding me of the late, great Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946-1982).

If I seem unusually excited, it’s because it suddenly seems possible to imagine a steady stream of low-budget, nuanced and unyieldingly intelligent movies to counterbalance the bottom-line mania of the new baby moguls with their infernal franchise filmmaking. After a while, even the more talented $20-million-a-picture stars may take an occasional low-fee holiday to regain their artistic souls. In the meantime, don’t miss The Good Girl .

M. Night Shyamalan’s Heavy-Handed Signs

M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs already seems to have become the latest critical fiasco of the season-despite its strong opening at the box office-but I can’t say that I’m bitterly disappointed. From the moment the first extraterrestrial crop-circle publicity hit the fan, I became uneasy. Then the idea of Mel Gibson as the brooding father of two motherless children sent me scampering away on my own road to perdition. This is not to say that I think any the less of the director, writer and producer’s The Sixth Sense (1999)-perhaps the biggest “sleeper” hit in movie history, with over $600 million in the till at last count. Few people had ever heard of Mr. Shyamalan before The Sixth Sense , and even fewer had any idea of what to expect from still another movie with the critically underrated Bruce Willis in the lead. Suffice it to say that I was genuinely jolted by this ingenious variation on the old ghost formula, perhaps because some part of me still believes that the dead are always with us.

But no part of me has ever believed in flying saucers and extraterrestrial beings, whether friendly or hostile. In Signs , they are literally scaly creatures with predatory claws, and I say “Bah humbug!” to all that.

Mr. Shyamalan has miscalculated in mixing the microcosm of a Bucks County farm family, grieving over a shocking traffic accident that has claimed the life of a wife and mother of two small children, with the macrocosm of an H.G. Wells–ian invasion of Earth from outer space. In both realms, the film suffers from excessive sobriety and bull-session theology. One of my colleagues has already noted that with acres and acres of corn rising “as high as an elephant’s eye,” in the words of the lyric in South Pacific by Oscar Hammerstein II, there’s no sign of any farm equipment or chores. Mr. Shyamalan insisted in an interview that “for me, supernatural things are all metaphors for the human story.” Perhaps the fields of corn in which the alien creatures hide and the mysterious crop circles serve as metaphors as well.

Mr. Gibson’s Graham Hess, an Episcopal minister, and his despondent brother Merrill, played with a winning vulnerability by Joaquin Phoenix, have their hands full trying to calm two hyper-excitable children, 12-year-old Morgan (Rory Culkin) and 5-year old Bo (Abigail Breslin). The asthmatic Morgan struck me as particularly creepy with his solemn sci-fi precocity. The gifted Cherry Jones plays Caroline Paski, a police officer and one of the family’s few links to a larger social context, and Patricia Kalember makes the most of her brief flashback appearance as the dying Collen Hess, whose last words tie in with Merrill’s onetime prowess as a minor-league home-run star with a career-killing propensity for strikeouts. Mr. Shyamalan is hardly a lazy or sloppy screenwriter; he labors to fit all the pieces of his characterizations into a harmonious whole. Hence, little Bo’s allergic reaction to water proves to be the key to the final triumph of the earthlings over the extraterrestrials, and Merrill ultimately redeems himself by employing his wildest home-run swing against the menacing aliens. In the end, Graham Hess regains the faith in God he lost after the death of his wife, dons his clerical collar and ventures forth into a brave new world. Somehow, I was never moved, despite all the signs of talent and even virtuosity in the production. The movie is almost completely lacking in suspense, surprise and consistent emotional conviction. It is much too early to give up on the 32-year-old Mr. Shyamalan and dismiss The Sixth Sense as a one-shot fluke. The signs are that he is a technically accomplished auteur, but an alarmingly fuzzy thinker.

Where Voting Is Exotic

Babak Payami’s Secret Ballot , from his own screenplay, based on an idea by Moshen Makhmalbaf, takes place on Election Day on a remote island in Iran, where voting is still regarded as an exotic activity. There are only two major characters: an initially surly soldier (Cyrus Abidi) on uneventful guard duty, and a pushy woman election official (Nassim Abdi) who arrives by boat and immediately rubs him the wrong way by ordering him around. The soldier cannot believe that the government has sent a woman to do what he considers a man’s job. Out of such elemental discord is the rest of the film constructed, as this oddest of odd couples drive around the island in search of reluctant voters and come to appreciate each other’s less contentious qualities. That’s all, folks-except for some of the longest takes in the history of cinema, and a precious bit of ethnographic essence for moviegoers who can appreciate political irony for its own sake.