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The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The Outsider Miguel Arteta, Director Of 'The Good Girl,' Draws On His Own Life For His Funny, Poignant Movies About Misfit Characters


August 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. All rights reserved. 

As Miguel Arteta, director of The Good Girl, talks about himself, an old bumper sticker comes to mind: "Obsessive, compulsive, neurotic and paranoid - but basically happy." Arteta's movies mix comedy and pathos, putting desperate characters in untenable situations from which they eventually seek escape. It's hard to tell, sometimes, whether his films are depressing or life-affirming. And that, Arteta says, is because they reflect his own personality.

"It does seem like a wreck of a life," says the 37-year-old Arteta, smiling. "I am interested in the tragicness. As an American culture, we have everything we need, to some degree. It's a wealthy nation - not everybody's wealthy, but in general, it's a wealthy nation, and we're unhappy. That is so tragic. Most of the world is starving, and they're not sitting around, complaining, 'Why is life empty?' So I find it's a fascinating topic, an American topic. . . . I like to explore these things with humor."

In The Good Girl, which opens Friday, Jennifer Aniston plays Justine, a small-town Texas woman who feels trapped: She has a soul-stealing job at a five-and-dime store, and she comes home to her house-painter husband (John C. Reilly), who sits on the couch with his best buddy (Tim Blake Nelson) as they bake their brains on pot. When a new, younger employee (Jake Gyllenhaal) with a Catcher in the Rye fixation shows up at the store, Justine is intrigued enough to drift into an affair with him - and then finds herself feeling even more trapped than before.

And this is a comedy. So was Arteta's previous film, Chuck and Buck, in which Mike White - who wrote both movies - played an arrested-development character who is trying to recapture a moment with a boyhood friend from summer camp. By treating the infatuated man sympathetically, even though he has all the traits of a stalker, Arteta and White turned Chuck and Buck into one of the most heartbreaking "comedies" of the past couple of years.

Arteta has always been drawn to outsiders; he feels a little like one himself. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Costa Rica, he moved to the United States to pursue his love of film, seeing two movies a day to increase his knowledge of film history, attending Harvard's documentary-filmmaking program and, eventually, the film-studies program at Connecticut's Wesleyan University. At Wesleyan, he made a satirical musical, Every Day Is a Beautiful Day, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for a Student Academy Award in 1990.

Janine Basinger, who heads Wesleyan's film-studies department, says Arteta was sympathetic to misfits even back then.

"He is not a loser," Basinger says. "He has never been a loser. But he sympathizes and empathizes with the fear of losing. And he's never condescending or cruel to those people. What's great is he lays it bare, he lays the characters bare, and yet there's no cruelty in him."

Basinger, whom Arteta cites as a significant influence on his filmmaking, brushes aside Arteta's description of himself as obsessive and paranoid.

"Miguel maybe is telling you how he feels inside when he's under pressure to get things done, but if you're observing Miguel from the outside, what you see is an extremely well-organized, very hard-working, super-intelligent person who's got his act together," she says. "Would I say he's obsessive? It's not the word I would use. I would say he's dedicated."

Arteta graduated from Wesleyan in 1989 and took crew jobs on Sidney Lumet's police drama Q&A and Jonathan Demme's documentary Cousin Bobby. He received a master's degree from the American Film Institute in 1993 and spent the next four years working on his first film, Star Maps, about a young Mexican immigrant who finds himself in the world of bisexual prostitution in Los Angeles. Arteta did the film partly as a reaction to Latino stereotypes in movies, but he says he's careful not to become a spokesman for Hispanics in his movies.

"The whole burden of representation, it's a real double-edged sword," he says. "It's a trap. Because what makes a movie great is having an individual point of view, somebody is giving you who they are, which is not specific to a whole culture. . . .

"Not that movies like Stand and Deliver weren't necessary," he adds. "There were so many negative stereotypes that you had to have a movie that comes and says, 'You know what? Some of us are angelic.' "

While making Star Maps, Arteta met White, an actor and aspiring screenwriter who connected with Arteta's empathy for misfit characters - and, White says, with Arteta's neuroses.

"I think the reason why our collaborations have worked pretty well is we know each other's limits," White says. "There's a lot of anxiety that comes with a creative endeavor and making these movies. I think we're aware of the fact that the other person is sensitive. When we want to voice our anxieties, we dump it on someone else."

Besides Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl (in which White appears as a self-righteous Christian security guard), White and Arteta also worked together on Freaks & Geeks, the underappreciated late-'90s TV showabout high-school misfits circa 1980. Besides directing episodes of that show, Arteta also worked on an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street and two episodes of HBO's critical darling Six Feet Under.

"I did the second episode of the first season," he says of the latter show. "[Series creator] Alan Ball directed the pilot, and I was the first person to come after that. It was so frightening because I have so much respect for him, and here I was, like, 'Why are you hiring me to do the second episode?' But he had watched Chuck and Buck, and he sat me down and was, like, 'I notice that all your humor comes from an extremely painful place. And that's why you're here.' And I felt at home."

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