Over the weekend, I discovered a use for He's Just Not That Into You — the movie, not the book, although I imagine the book would make an okay projectile, especially if it were lit on fire. The movie version, while incompetent at comedy, romance, psychological drama (eek, it kind of tries!), or insight beyond "jerky guys are jerks, but aren't you also kind of an idiot, you jerk?" did help me zero in on my instinctive dislike of Jennifer Aniston.
Usually if I'm explaining why I don't like Jennifer Aniston, I say it's because she's often cast as someone who is supposed to be smart and funny, and is mostly pretty terrible at conveying either of those qualities. But this new movie, even with only a supporting amount of Aniston, highlights what gets in the way: so many of her film roles are steeped in self-pity.
First, some credit: I'm fairly sure I remember reading criticisms of Aniston along these lines in Entertainment Weekly from Lisa Schwarzbaum, but I can't for the life of me find the particular review. But good show, Ms. Schwarzbaum; I'm seeing it now more than ever. I'm not sure if this observation came before or in the midst of Aniston's tabloid hell, and I don't mean to conflate tabloid-assigned roles with even her onscreen persona, much less her actual personality which, obviously, I don't know and never will. But it's difficult to avoid the low-key burdens that weigh over much of her work, mimicking her marketing in the tabloids.
In Bruce Almighty and The Break-Up, she refashions the stock "long-suffering girlfriend" part with undue emphasis on the suffering; in Rumor Has It and many of her other romantic comedies, she's the single gal who can't catch a break. Even in better movies like The Good Girl or Office Space or Friends with Money, she has to suffer through a tedious job with miserable coworkers and/or friends and/or beaus who don't understand her (at least those movies place her glumness in places that vaguely resemble a believable world).
He's Just Not That Into You makes the most of Aniston's limited screentime in the sense that it saddles her with a long-time boyfriend who doesn't believe in marriage; a young sister who's getting married before her; crass extended family members who humiliate and hit on her while being totally ugly and stuff; and immediate and in-law family members who selfishly ignore her sick father and let poor Jennifer — I mean Beth — do all of the cooking and cleaning and caring.
The movie kinda sorta lets us know that her marriage-or-nothing ultimatum to her perfectly reasonable boyfriend isn't quite right — before endorsing it with a "surprise" post-contrition proposal that makes both parties look like manipulative creeps. But moreover, we never once see Beth doing or saying anything remotely interesting. She just stands with her arms poised in that prickly, Jennifer Aniston pose, her face in a petite little mini-grimace, suffering in a way that might be called deadpan or wry if she was, you know, actually funny.
Clearly, certain audience segments respond to this quality, and it dovetails nicely with her "real-life" role as the spurned gal next door. (I have to wonder, too, crass as it is, if Brad Pitt has some kind of victim fetish. Angelina Jolie often plays invulnerable ass-kickers... except in her recent "serious" gigs, where she suffers bigger, harder, and nobler than Aniston.) But the lack of genuine humor and intelligence, for me, makes the put-upon act just plain off-putting. Aniston's characters never come off as particularly smart or witty, so the jerks around her have to be cartoonish and dumbed-down.
Maybe that's why her guest turn on 30 Rock felt so liberated: she got to just loosen up and act like a self-centered lunatic, and we weren't prompted to go "aw, poor Jen" or anything. Maybe that's why He's Just Not That Into You can't even succeed on its own terms, either: it's more interested in pity than romance or comedy.