No matter how many times Hollywood screenwriters trot out this tired hackneyed plot in failed horror movies there’s always another just like it around the corner. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: An attractive young couple Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) return to his family’s deserted secluded vacation home after attending a friend’s wedding reception. With roses petals strewn everywhere and a ring box in sight this was to be a night of elation for the couple--but something goes wrong. At 4:00 am just as things begin to pick up for them again romantically there is a loud knock at the door. Of course being mind-numbingly stupid movie characters they open it to discover a strange young woman asking if someone named “Tamara” was home. After that James has to conveniently leave for a while which leaves Kristen alone. What ensues is about 40 minutes of near encounters with three masked weirdos who clearly are not there to borrow a cup of sugar. When James returns Kristen must convince him there are people trying to terrorize her. It doesn’t take long before he gets the message and the two must use all their wiles to fight for their lives. Let’s face it this is not the type of script that’s going to attract Meryl Streep. Liv Tyler is the nominal lead and altough her rather expressionless weepy doll school of acting is an acquired taste she does prove she can scream with the best of ’em when the knives finally come out. Unfortunately much of The Strangers is ultimately reliant on the proposition that we care about this couple and their romantic woes. We don’t. Chemistry is nil between Tyler and co-star Scott Speedman whose bland performance doesn’t help matters. There’s really not much to say about the masked “strangers” (Gemma Ward Kip Weeks and Laura Margolis) who all act like zombies and speak in monotones. Glenn Howerton as James’ friend has some brief moments that threaten to liven up the proceedings but he’s in and out too quickly to make much of an impression. First time screenwriter/director Bryan Bertino pulls out all the clichés associated with this type of film. You’ve seen it all done many times before in any number of pictures from Straw Dogs to the recent Funny Games and Vacancy. Bertino’s gimmick seems to be letting the audience not the characters in on what’s about to happen. So often we see the killers lurking in the shadows unnoticed by our clueless leads. Then they vanish. This pattern is repeated over and over milking the “suspense ” but not making much story sense. There are a couple of standard movie jolts here and there to mix things up but mostly Bertino proves himself to be a better tease than director. No Hitchcock this dude! SPOILER ALERT: We have a policy about not giving away the ending but it sucks. Just like the movie.
As a precious equivalent of a handmade dollhouse Marilyn Hotchkiss is based on a 1990 short film narrated by William Hurt about a Pasadena ballroom-dancing school for preteens in which 10-year-olds Steve and Lisa first meet. Now grown up Steve (John Goodman) is dying on a rural road. With his guts splayed over his chest Steve retells his childhood dance memories of Lisa (Camryn Manheim) to a stranger Frank (Robert Carlyle) who finds him lying there. Coincidentally Frank is also taking the same Marilyn Hotchkiss ballroom dancing class now taught by Marilyn’s prim and proper daughter Marienne (Mary Steenburgen) as an adult. As Steve is leaving life Frank is re-starting his and the two of them connected through dance. Subplots of the ballroom dancers and Frank’s therapy partners are an interesting departure to the colored textures of human anxiety. The actors bring a wealth of experience and professionalism to their roles which are pared down for efficiency. Carlyle (Trainspotting) leads the way with modest conflicted restraint carrying the group’s collective acting abilities on his shoulders. Group scenes allow Oscar-nominee David Paymer to play off Sean Astin while Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei matches seductive physical moves with Carlyle in dancing scenes. Manheim is perfectly ugly for the haggard house-bound adult Lisa smoking cigarettes and unaware of her lifetime effect on Steve. The roster is so tight that Danny DeVito is stuffed into a lower bed bunk as a wise prisoner with about five minutes of screen time. Donnie Wahlberg is the actor to get most excited about. His flamboyant turns on the dance floor--think Dodgeball’s Ben Stiller with a stalker’s sense of violent romanticism--hint at the former NKOTB’s acting ability. Wahlberg in the tradition of his brother Mark could be another brooding Dirk Diggler. Despite the big-name talent Marilyn Hotchkiss is small which may explain its reception (or lack thereof) since its Jan. 2005 Sundance premiere. Its a little rough around the edges coming from director Randall Miller (The Sixth Man Houseguest) whose last work was in late ‘90s television. With Marilyn Hotchkiss Miller creates a time-capsule-like effect with quaint dialogue and close-up camera shots. The director also wrote the script which is limited in its scope. A handful of the same settings (the dancehall the therapy room) create a monotony and lack of momentum; the drama is contained. But the color schemes affect the moods of some shots such as a whitewash over Goodman’s dying scene in the ambulance--and the dance scenes have that certain joie de vivre. Marilyn Hotchkiss might be the movie Miller was born to make but it just doesn’t quite reach the winner’s circle of timeless classics.
Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston) lives the kind of life that rarely makes the big screen. She spends her days giving makeovers at the Retail Rodeo and her nights watching her house painter husband of seven years Phil (John C. Reilly) and his best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) sit on her couch and get high. All of that changes though when she meets Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) the new cashier. The eager yet troubled young poet/screenwriter/novelist-to-be captures her imagination and eventually becomes her lover. In classic moments of small-Southern-town trysting he takes her to his room in his parents' house and arranges meetings outside the Chuck E. Cheese's. They shack up in a motel at the edge of town; they rendezvous at a lake in the country. Throughout the affair though Justine is torn and guilty wanting to be a "good girl " but finding herself a hateful woman--a self-proclaimed adulteress and a liar. This is no whitewashed fantasy of a romantic affair between an older woman and a younger man. This affair is your sister's your brother's your husband's your wife's. It's real it's gritty and it's painful. Ultimately Holden's love for Justine becomes morbid and obsessive causing her to realize that the man she thought would change her life was in fact "at best a child and at worst--a demon." Justine is then forced to choose: this obsessive love and the excitement it brings or a stable--if boring--life with her husband.
Aniston proves her mettle at last in a role that finally allows her to do so; no one who sees this film will ever again accidentally call her "Rachel" (her character on the ubiquitous sitcom Friends). Her performance perfectly captures the tension of wanting to be a "good girl" yet secretly yearning to be selfish. You know she's dueling with herself as she makes decision after decision that leads inexorably to the film's tragic ending and you feel her pain. Justine is flawed like all the rest of us and Aniston brings this humanity to the forefront creating one of the most realistic heroines in recent history. Gyllenhaal too is perfectly cast as the brooding intense Holden. He captures the duality screenwriter Mike White writes into nearly all the characters in this movie: You want to snuggle Holden one minute; the next you wish he'd just go away. Reilly and Nelson also demonstrate a not inconsiderable subtlety in roles that could easily have become caricatures; instead the tension between what these guys wanted from life and what they ultimately ended up with accentuates Justine's turmoil and deepens the film's theme. On the film's lighter side White puts in a hilariously dark turn as Corny the Bible-thumping security guard at Retail Rodeo and Zooey Deschanel is excellent as the classic employee with an attitude hurling insults at Retail Rodeo customers over the loudspeaker as she announces the latest bargain on aisle eight.
The Good Girl doesn't look like much. Darkness and shadows invade every corner of the screen at one point or another the sets are fairly commonplace and the costumes are simple: Lee jeans smocks plaid shirts and painter's pants. Even Aniston's pink bathrobe is dull and washed out. The Good Girl is a smart delicately ironic and insightful partnership between a brilliant screenwriter (White) and a director (Miguel Arteta) who know exactly how to bring words to life on the screen. And The Good Girl does come to life in a well-paced funny quirky package that leaves you thinking that above all what you have seen is a slice of truth in a mixed-up crazy world.