Photo by Dale Robinette

QUEEN OF THE WORLD'S MOST CHIPPER SITUATION comedy, Jennifer Aniston doesn't immediately spring to mind as a resident of Raymond Carver country. Yet Aniston has played working-class heroines before, and rather well. As a put-upon young wife in Edward Burns' She's the One, she showed a sturdy, forthright incorruptibility that lit up an otherwise slight movie. Brad and her size-4 body notwithstanding, Aniston's glamour isn't sexual — she's a Breck girl who can slip into ordinariness without the self-importance so many pretty actresses wheel out for the down-home, “plucky” roles that boost their résumés. It's impossible not to like Aniston, and equally impossible not to wish her likability would show a little wear and tear. Which makes it especially gratifying to see her play a woman who's had it up to here with making nice, and making do.

In director Miguel Arteta's new film, The Good Girl (his second collaboration with the madly talented screenwriter Mike White), Aniston plays Justine Last, a bored resident of Wasteland, Texas, whose world is bounded by her work as a sales assistant at the Retail Rodeo, the discount department store in which most of the action takes place, and a becalmed home life with her amiably potheaded husband, Phil (John C. Reilly), and his equally doped-up tagalong pal, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Phil's idea of conjugal adventure is a wild night out at Señor Tuna, and you can feel the depression in Justine's vacant button eyes, in the streaked blond hair carelessly scraped back from her guileless moon face, in her timid shuffle, in the sudden bursts of irritation at her husband for not getting the television repaired. She's drowning, to the point that she's lost even the power to imagine another life. When a sullen new employee (Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears to be spending the year playing boy-toy to desperate older women) introduces himself as Holden, a writer of stories that end with their characters taking bug poison, Justine, who's never heard of J.D. Salinger, sees glamour where others would see a cliché. In short order, the two are humping away in a cheap motel that Justine doesn't even notice is of a piece with the world she thinks she's fled. So far from escaping to a better life, Justine spends her time trying to put out the fires she's ignited, and the movie's most satisfying — and disturbing — joke is that the deeper in she gets, the more she discovers in herself a heedless narcissist. Loudly lamenting that she wasn't a good friend to a recently deceased colleague, Justine absently leans over and pops some food from her husband's plate into her mouth.

As in the work of Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason and other chroniclers of the decline of hinterland America, The Good Girl's terrain is the desolate claustrophobia of physical and emotional decay in small towns bled of all particularity and charm by tawdry monster malls. The production design is a uniform distressed blue, like some cheap knockoff of a grungy television ad aimed at teens, and the movie's first half is cocooned in creepy stillness. People sit, stand or lie — when they move, it comes as a shock. Indeed, Aniston plays her depressed character with enough conviction to guarantee that practically every scene will be stolen out from under her by minor characters, among them a pricelessly funny Zooey Deschanel as a Retail Rodeo employee who vents her rage and frustration on the customers, and by screenwriter White, reprising the blitzed, fishy stare he perfected in Chuck & Buck, as a security guard who tries to turn Justine on to God. The Good Girl can't help but be a comedy. If it weren't, we'd all be down in the dumps with Justine, for which of us, mall-ified or not, hasn't felt our lives being slowly strangled by mindless routine? As in Arteta and White's previous movie, Chuck & Buck, every comic situation in The Good Girl contains a kernel of desperation, or menace, or both. The movie is hardly a morality play — her creators like Justine too much to send her the way of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary — but its message is bleak enough: No matter how you slice it, life's a prison. Have a nice day.

Eastwood and Huston in Blood Work
(Photo by Merie W. Wallace)

AT 72 YEARS OLD, CLINT EASTWOOD IS OFFICIAL movie royalty, and this is not all good. For one thing, just about everything he does is received with kid-gloved reverence — even, alas, by critics. For another, Eastwood has been a subtle crafter of his late-life image, which most of us have swallowed wholesale, including the guff. Since he turned to directing, Eastwood has made some very good films, among them The Outlaw Josey Wales, A Perfect World, Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart, one great snore (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), a tasteful rendition of a dumb novel (The Bridges of Madison County), an insufferably pompous piece of cant (Absolute Power), a fun romp (Space Cowboys) and one justly celebrated great movie, Unforgiven. In a good many of the movies he also stars in, Eastwood has sought, by upstaging the Gary Cooper rectitude of his salad days, to persuade us that he's at peace with being a codger and/or a fine old gent. This could be interesting, and even wise about what lies beneath America's obsession with the strong, silent type. But vanity will out, as evidenced by the magnanimously bosomed youngish women who, struck dumb by Eastwood's old-school charm and sexual prowess, still populate his movies, and, most spectacularly, by the final scene of Unforgiven, an orgasmic shoot-'em-up that announced in no uncertain terms, “I'm still the Man.”

The show goes on. In his new movie, Blood Work, Eastwood plays veteran FBI profiler Terry McCaleb, surely the only man in the world who can fire off lethal rounds of ammunition while suffering a heart attack massive enough to require a transplant. Call me allergic to men in authority, but words can't describe my gratification on seeing Eastwood bossed around by Anjelica Huston, who plays Terry's cardiologist and prescribes quiet retirement on a decrepit old houseboat. This, of course, is not to be. It turns out that Terry's new heart was previously owned by a beautiful young Latina who was murdered under mysterious circumstances, and whose equally gorgeous sister, Graciella (Wanda de Jesùs), shows up to point her impressive breasts at Terry and implore him to crack the case for the sake of her sister's small son. Gentlemanly courtesy, those breasts and a suspicion that the murder closely resembles another, apparently unconnected one that Terry has been following up compel the aging agent to get back on the job. Against the impolitely expressed wishes of the obligatory dumb police detective (Paul Rodriguez) and with the dubious aid of his indolent trust-funder of a neighbor (a wonderful Jeff Daniels), plus a luscious black former police colleague (Tina Lifford) who bats her eyes at Eastwood while blithely risking her job to provide him with background data, Terry returns to work as only a veteran grandstander can — as a freelancer.

One hopes that Michael Connelly's novel, on which Blood Work is based, did a better job of concealing its tracks. Under most circumstances I am utterly hopeless at guessing whodunit, but even I had the killer figured out within the hour. Almost nothing comes as a surprise in this stately old fogy of a movie. The pacing is glacial, the screenplay (by Brian Helgeland) is stiff as a board, and things heat up only in the movie's final scenes, where, notwithstanding his creaking joints and unhappy ticker, Terry does what a man's gotta do. But not before the lovely Graciella has shown him in the nicest possible way that she's no ageist, and that he's still the Man.

THE GOOD GIRL | Directed by MIGUEL ARTETA | Written by MIKE WHITE | Produced by MATTHEW GREENFIELD Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex and Laemmle's Sunset 5

BLOOD WORK | Directed by CLINT EASTWOOD | Written
by BRIAN HELGELAND | Based on the novel by MICHAEL CONNELLY | Produced by EASTWOOD | Released by Warner Bros. Pictures | Citywide

LA Weekly