Nobody will ever accuse Miguel Arteta of harboring a fatal attraction to glamour. In his three feature films, "Star Maps," "Chuck & Buck" and the new "The Good Girl," the Puerto Rican-born, Wesleyan-educated director has evidenced a fascination with societal cast-offs who try to advance themselves on the basis of their patently finite personal gifts, usually with gruesome and/or comic results.
"Star Maps" (1997), the grimmest and least mature of the three, concerned the plight of a Mexican-American boy ushered into a life of prostitution by his own father. "Chuck & Buck" (2000), a collaboration with writer/actor Mike White, detailed a psychologically stunted man-child's obsession with a childhood playmate. In "The Good Girl," also written by White, Arteta takes his biggest gamble yet, casting tabloid darling Jennifer Aniston as a Texan wife and wage slave whose dormant wanderlust is awakened by a broodingly attractive younger man (Jake Gyllenhaal, fresh from portraying a similar object of cradle-robbing desire in "Lovely & Amazing.")
"I love characters that are damaged," Arteta says, "or flawed, [or who] don't have the tools to deal with life, but have a lot of energy -- even if it's misguided -- to improve their lives. They're trying anything they think might help them." Chronicling the foibles, failures and (once in a while) triumphs of such creatures, he says, "is like free therapy for me."
There's Rorschach material a plenty in the character of Justine Last (Aniston), who by day slogs through a nothing job at a discount hellhole called the Retail Rodeo, then spends her nights at home observing living-room toke sessions undertaken by her possibly impotent husband, Phil (John C. Reilly of "The Anniversary Party"), and his hopeless goober of a buddy, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). This underachieving status quo is shaken up via Justine's affair with a Rodeo co-worker whose real name is Tom, but who prefers to be called Holden (as in Caulfield). Before you can say "scarlet letter," Justine is off on a see-sawing, guilt-ridden rebellion, in pursuit of fulfillment but dogged all the way by her ingrained notions of "good" behavior.
One constant in Arteta's films is the equation of sex with power. "Star Maps" was suffused with it, and within the tense Chuck/Buck dynamic, physical attraction was the metaphoric elephant in the corner of the room. The new film continues the pattern, with Justine's indiscretions leaving her open to blackmail that's -- you guessed it -- carnal in nature.
"I think sex is hard," Arteta muses, "and people's expectations about it are high. I like taking a funny approach to it every time, an unsentimental approach. As a culture, we're way too repressed."
For further proof of his boundary-removing agenda, look no further than the hiring of Aniston. According to Arteta, he and White had thought about retaining "a typical dark indie diva" for the Justine role, but realized that "it would be so much more fun to cast somebody who people see as America's sweetheart." Though the actress had been looking to widen her horizons with a project she could hold up to the world as "her 'Ordinary People,'" even she didn't initially see herself in the "Good Girl" script she received.
"I only have one question," Arteta remembers her saying. "Did you get the right address?" Once the director convinced her that she could fill the bill, Aniston put in an intense amount of physical and emotional preparation, including wearing wrist and ankle weights to change her posture and effect a more beaten-down carriage.
"Jennifer is so relatable," Arteta praises. "You have so much empathy for her. It's a great idea to have her do things that are really radical and strange."
What's strange for a star, though, is paradoxically commonplace to a large portion of her fan base. Much of "The Good Girl" will ring wickedly familiar to any viewer who, like Justine, has done time in that peculiar substrata of the work force in which a white collar exists only in concert with a blue smock.
"In an odd way, [the film] kind of works like a prison movie," the director assesses. "The store almost becomes a metaphor for a jail." To press the point, production designer Daniel Bradford -- who Arteta says he "stole" from Wes Anderson -- exaggerated the space between the racks and aisles, reinforcing the sense of commercialized inhumanity.
Erected on location, the Retail Rodeo was realistic enough to fool passersby who, as Arteta recalls, sometimes walked in expecting to buy cosmetics from Jennifer Aniston. And how did Miss Thing take to her sudden recruitment into customer service?
"She loved it. She tried to sell them. [And] she gives a mean makeover."