It"s the dog days of summer and the barrage of testosterone-fueled blockbusters is over, allowing room for smaller movies that focus on personalities and relationships. The scarcity of good roles for women remains a problem in the acting community, but you wouldn"t know it by looking at the current crop of movies. The Good Girl gives Jennifer Aniston a break from Friends as she plays a disheartened small town Texas wife tempted by a clueless young rebel. Once and Again veteran Evan Rachel Wood stars as a young violin virtuoso dealing with adolescent yearnings in the family-friendly Little Secrets. The amazing Christina Ricci tackles controversy as a social-climbing sorority girl who stumbles into forbidden romance in Pumpkin, while Simone presents a radiant Hollywood star that exists only as a computer program in the hands of Al Pacino. This week marks a break in format as we take a look at the girls of summer.
The Good Girl (R) 3 1/2 stars Mike White and Miguel Arteta, the writer-director team responsible for the creepy relationship tale Chuck and Buck, reunite for a story of disaffection and simmering lust in the sticks. Justine (Jennifer Aniston) spends her days looking bored at Retail Rodeo (a run-down little department store as tacky as its name) with her oblivious boss (John Caroll Lynch), an aggressively fundamentalist Christian security guard (White) and a co-worker (Zooey Deschanel), who voices her contempt with life by making caustic remarks on the store"s public address system. At night, she usually ends up staring into space while her house painter husband Phil (John C. Reilly) and his best buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) smoke dope and ponder the universe while stretched over the living room furniture in their nasty work clothes. Low-income, small town life is hell, do you hear me, HELL! Forget the John Mellencamp song. Forget the squabbling but loving family in Roseanne. Low-income, small town life is an unrelenting nightmare! The movies say so. For Justine, respite from LOW-INCOME, SMALL TOWN HELL comes with the arrival of a new employee. Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), who named himself after the anti-hero in J.D. Salinger"s Catcher in the Rye, is a hot little bundle of anger, jotting soulful musings in his journal when not busy looking mournful with his big, puppy dog eyes. At first they just chat, but their need for something - anything - more, coupled with their mutual sexiness, soon leads them to the local crappy motel (complete with a partially burned-out neon sign, natch) and a world of hurt later. Despite the condescending handling of its setting, the story succeeds due, primarily, to fine performances by Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal. She finds the correct understated place for her character and maintains it, even adjusting the use of her limbs to fit Justine"s prisoner-of-circumstance mindset. Gyllenhaal makes his Holden a beguiling twerp, wearing a look that hints at more self-awareness than one would expect from the boy. The supporting cast is uniformly fine, with the sole cartoonish (but funny) turn coming from White, the man who wrote the film. Little Secrets (PG) 3 stars Another movie where the lead players save the production. Young Emily (Evan Rachel Wood) is a gifted violinist who skips summer camp with her girlfriends in favor of staying home and practicing for the upcoming symphony try-outs. She also keeps busy as the neighborhood secret keeper. Opening her handmade booth each afternoon, she charges to hear the secrets of the other neighborhood kids and help them with cover stories and cover-ups as needed. Her summer brightens with the arrival of new neighbor Philip (Michael Angarano, Jack"s son on Will & Grace), a fresh-faced boy who encourages her to expand her world. But there is trouble on the horizon. Philip"s older brother David is coming back from camp, and what he did wrong triggers Emily"s most closely guarded secret. Wood and Angarano are exceptional young actors who skillfully add color and shading to their characters. Thank goodness, because this film has only three things going for it: the performances of the kids, a nice cameo from Vivica A. Fox and a reverence for music. The latter is all the more surprising given the film"s insufferably cutesy-pie score. The soundtrack drips with musical clichÈs not heard since those dreadful live-action Disney stories from the "60s. Come to think of it, the trite script would have been at home on an old Disney show as well. Regardless, I was happy to sit through the retro-crap of Little Secrets in order to watch Wood and Angarano in action. Pumpkin (R) 4 stars Now comes the corker. Easily the best of the four films, Pumpkin dares to mix satire with real emotions while flirting with an issue close to my heart. Christina Ricci, she of the big round face and acid tongue, is Carolyn McDuffy, a senior at Southern California State University and a woman determined to get Alpha Omega Pi named Sorority of the Year - at any cost. Even if that means bringing a black and a Filipino into the sorority to go with their Asian. Even if that means working as mentors for young male athletes training for the "Challenged Games" (essentially Special Olympics, renamed to avoid a lawsuit). At first Carolyn is put off by her charity case, a sullen wheelchair athlete (possibly mildly mentally retarded as well) called Pumpkin (Hank Harris). He quickly develops a crush on her and, to her great surprise, she gradually begins to feel the same. As the father of a retarded son, I have longed to see a film that seriously looks at the social and ethical issues regarding a love affair between a retarded individual and a person of standard intelligence. Pumpkin dips its toe in the deep end, particularly in a scene where Carolyn pairs Pumpkin with a chubby friend for a double date. The girl is mortified and Carolyn is so shaken by the reaction that she fails to ask why being matched with a handicapped guy should be considered offensive. The filmmakers fail to dive in, though, never addressing whether or not Pumpkin is retarded. Still, the film gets big points for raising the topics at all. Although there are many juicy supporting performances, Christina Ricci owns this movie. What a wonderful talent, and what a maddening, but enjoyable film. Simone (PG-13) 3 stars And then there"s Simone. After his film is almost ruined by a temperamental star (Winona Ryder, in a terrific cameo), director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) gets a last chance, courtesy of "Simulation One," a computer program capable of creating an absolutely realistic virtual performer. "Sim-One" becomes Simone. Taransky integrates her into his film and a star is born. Of course, this perfect woman does not exist, so it is vital that Taransky keeps anyone from looking too closely. And, of course, his efforts build a mystique that makes Simone an even bigger celebrity. Don"t look closely at the plot - it has enough holes to fill Albert Hall. Forget the messages about art and ego - they are obvious and have been better addressed in other films. The comedy is best enjoyed if you simply watch it as a digital Frankenstein story, while admiring the fantastic art direction by writer/director Andrew Niccol (author of The Truman Show and director of Gattaca). Simone is as insubstantial as its leading lady, but it makes for a pleasant late-summer sorbet.