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GOOD GIRL, THE

American comedies dealing with characters from the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum are rarely successful; most wind up as condescending and insipid as “Waking Up in Reno,” a trailer-trash extravaganza with a starry cast (Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron, Patrick Swayze, Natasha Richardson) poised for release last spring but so savagely received in press screenings that Miramax wisely scratched it from the schedule (it’s now listed as a fall release, but may never see the inside of a multiplex). That’s one reason why Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl” is such a pleasant surprise. A shrewd, observant ensemble comedy-drama, it’s packed with hayseed types and depicts them sharply and amusingly, but at the same time it maintains an underlying empathy for their plight, making you care about what happens to them. The intermingling of light and shade is characteristic of Arteta and writer Mike White, who also collaborated on “Chuck & Buck” (2000); while this film is far less dark and disturbing, it too will both make you laugh and give you pause.

White’s scenario centers on an interlinked group of people in a small Texas town; each is unhappy in his own way and searching for escape, some through so simple a means as drugs, others in religion, many by fantasizing about alternate futures for themselves. The linchpin among them is Justine (Jennifer Aniston), the unfulfilled wife of Phil (John C. Reilly), who works as a housepainter in tandem with his buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Justine and Phil have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child, and Justine has a dismal job at the Retail Rodeo, a poor cousin to K-Mart. Her fellow workers include Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), a disaffected youngster who peppers her announcements over the store speakers with deadpan insults and has a field day overdoing things when offering free cosmetic makeovers; Corny (White), a security guard with a blank smile who’s a Jesus freak; Gwen (Deborah Rush), a spinster who considers Justine a closer friend than Justine thinks her; and clueless store manager Jack Field (John Carroll Lynch), who compensates for anything and everything by overeating. Into this odd mix comes gawky, preternaturally shy clerk Tom Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), who calls himself Holden after the character in his favorite novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” and dreams of becoming a writer himself. Weary of Phil and Bubba’s boozing and pot smoking, and clearly stifled by her dead-end life, Justine is strangely drawn to Holden, who seems a poetic, romantic alternative despite (or perhaps because of) his brooding, potentially self-destructive personality; and before long the two are sharing not only lunch but an occasional motel room. The ramifications, which eventually draw in all the other characters as well, are both very funny and strangely poignant.

White’s script is a clever, well-constructed piece of work, but it could easily have gone awry in the wrong hands. Happily Arteta–as “Chuck and Buck” clearly demonstrated–is well attuned to the odd rhythms of the writing and generally sensitive to its delicate balance between the comic and the serious. Though the picture sometimes looks ragged around the edges (one function of its modest budget), his touch is mostly well-gauged, and he secures wonderful performances all around. Aniston is quite simply a revelation; sporting a pitch-perfect accent and shedding every trace of her sitcom persona, she captures both Justine’s dowdy look and the character’s intermingled frustration, longing and terrible insecurity. The others offer impeccable support. It’s always a joy to encounter Reilly, who turns Phil, who might have been a caricature, into a subtle, multi-faceted fellow, and Gyllenhaal continues his string of exceptional turns (“Bubble Boy” always excepted) as the anxious, pathetic Holden–surely he’s one of the best young actors working today. Nelson, White, Rush and Lynch haven’t quite as many opportunities to impress, but they seize every one they’ve been given; and Deschanel proves an accomplished scene-stealer, though the hilarious lines White has provided for Cheryl have a lot to do with it. Daniel Bradford’s production design and Enrique Chediak’s straightforward cinematography get the look of things right: this is a dusty, dreary town, as far from the plastic glamor of “Friends” as Aniston’s Justine is.

“The Good Girl” isn’t perfect–a few of the twists seem a bit precious and occasionally things are played a trifle too broadly. It does, however, exhibit a welcome–and unfortunately all too rare–willingness to showcase characters on the economic edge who, while amusing, are deeply flawed but still sympathetic, and to depict their actions as morally ambiguous to the very end. A little film that cannily melds edgy satire with a degree of warmth and even a touch of profundity, “The Good Girl” has some minor problems, but overall it’s a treat; and for Aniston it could well represent a career breakthrough.

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE

The Coen Brothers’ follow-up to their triumphant “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” might be characterized as an existentialist take on the classic film noir of the 1940s. As perfectly crafted as all their films, and shot in a black-and-white that imparts a luminous glow to the images, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is, in many respects, a mirror-image of the earlier picture (indeed, the very title may be intended as a wry response to the question posed by that of the “O Brother”): it’s deliberate where “Brother” was antic and pensive instead of rambunctious; it’s set in an era of growing prosperity and promise rather than one of economic depression; and its central character is as solemn and quiet as Everett Ulysses McGill was voluble and energetic. (They both are obsessed, though, with hair–though in very different ways.) Most importantly, while “Brother” was ultimately about trust and family, “Man” is about infidelity and isolation–though it treats of those subjects from a darkly humorous stance.

The story is set in Santa Rosa, California (an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”) in 1949. The protagonist is Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton, looking remarkably like Raymond Massey), a gaunt, almost preternaturally still barber who stoically endures the dalliance of his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) with her boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the manager of a local department store, appropriately called Nirdlinger’s. Ed works for Doris’ brother Frank (Michael Badalucco)–he inherited the shop from his father–who’s as talkative as Ed is impassive. Ed’s world is changed when he meets a sweaty, toupee-wearing hustler named Tolliver (Jon Polito, looking ridiculously like Akim Tamiroff in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”) who’s seeking financing for his revolutionary dry-cleaning business. He decides to get funds to invest With Tolliver by blackmailing Big Dave. The scheme backfires, however; he secures the money, but Dave gets wise. Before long Doris is jailed, and Ed and Frank have to scramble to hire a top-notch defense attorney named Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) for her. As a sideline, Ed grows intensely interested in Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), the daughter of lawyer Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins), whose amateur piano-playing he so admires that he wants to turn her into a professional. The youngster obviously represents a sort of muse calling Ed to something beyond his present existence, and over the course of the film he does reach a new level–though the convolutions of the plot make it a different one than he had hoped.

But the circuitous route that “The Man Who Wasn’t There” takes, while intriguing, isn’t nearly as important in the last analysis as the remarkable technique with which the brothers Coen conduct the journey. Every frame of the picture is thought out with a care that most filmmakers don’t exhibit through an entire feature (special note should be made of Polito’s final scene, which ironically recalls an extraordinary moment from Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter”), and quirks and oddities punctuate the narrative to startling effect, even though as a whole the film radiates a calmness that’s almost overwhelming. At the center of it all is Thornton, whose minimalist turn as Ed is a triumph that proves that less is often more; together with his flashier performance in “Bandits,” it insures that 2001 will be a memorable year in his career. The rest of the cast is solid across the board–certainly Gandolfini goes far to compensate for his misbegotten performance in “The Last Castle”–but all play second-fiddle to him. That’s particularly true of McDormand, who’s really given very little to do–rather surprising given that she’s writer-director Joel’s wife. The only serious disappointment is Shalhoub; he gamely tries to embody the lawyer’s extravagant self-absorption, but seems too small for the part’s oversized dimensions. Even still, Riedenschneider’s musings about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle get the chuckles they deserve.

The music to “The Man Who Wasn’t There” includes an original score by Carter Burwell and a few popular pieces from the period, but it’s mostly drawn from classical compositions, especially piano pieces by Beethoven. In Beethovenian terms, one could say that the picture is slighter than some of the Coens’ other work, less a full sonata perhaps than a bagatelle–one of the more languorous, gentler ones, of course. But a bagatelle this beautifully realized deserves to be heard, or, in this case, seen. Its jeweled brilliance and exquisite craftsmanship are treasurable. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a lovely, very funny and strangely moving film, one that takes its rightful place in the ever-more-amazing corpus of the brothers’ work.