There's nothing wrong with being a big fish in a small pond -- as long as the littler fish don't outshine you, which is exactly what happens to Jennifer Aniston in "The Good Girl." What should be the first tour de force of the her checkered film career finds her at best an equal, at worst an interloper in an otherwise enjoyable black-comic romp.
Making Aniston's Justine Last an employee at a Texan discount store inspires working-class grotesquerie that's as delicious as one would expect of director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White. The latter has a hilarious supporting turn as Corny, a security guard who can barely complete a sentence without alluding to his fundamentalist religious beliefs. The cast of bottom-feeding characters also includes a store manager (John Carroll Lynch) prone to delivering maudlin pep talks and a punkette (Zooey Deschanel) whose deadpan demeanor allows her to get away with murder -- like telling a customer that her hideous new look puts her in line with the chic "cirque du face" school of cosmetic daring. Jake Gyllenhaal puts a funny polish on the concept of a sullen young man entranced by J.D. Salinger.
The scenes that take place beyond the store's walls are a mixed bag. The bulk of the quirks come from Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), a weasely hanger-on who complicates Justine's already delicate relationship with her husband (John C. Reilly). That relationship is far less interesting than it should be, and it isn't Reilly's fault -- his character has the right oafishness. No, the problems are Aniston's, and they aren't limited to a Southern accent that is, as they say, right fair to middlin'. The actress simply doesn't have the range for the material: Every glance, gesture or line-delivery is one we've had delivered into our homes on countless Thursdays. The specter of "Friends'" Rachel proves impossible to exorcise, and Aniston's limitations grow more apparent as the story pushes Justine into desperate, often contradictory actions that would be a challenge for the most talented actress to make coherent, let alone sympathetic. Instead, we're left in the charge of a girl who's merely good when she needs to be great.