The Jennifer Aniston Problem

Poor Jennifer Aniston. She's heartbroken again, and it was a dirty breakup this time. Her boyfriend—a rock musician—cheats on her, and she discovers it by picking up a lipstick-stained wine glass. It's a fictional breakup, of course—at the beginning of her new movie, Love Happens—but her twisted face and emotional stuttering are straight out of real life, where we're used to seeing Aniston on the receiving end of a guy's bad behavior. While most heroines from romantic comedies are perpetually down in the dumps (see: Sandra Bullock, Rachel McAdams, or even Julia Roberts), Aniston is playing her own version of : it's impossible to tell whether her character's pain is any different from her own. Watching her like this feels strange, but familiar. We've been force-fed so many details of her romantic rumblings that any time a man cheats on her, walks out on her, or refuses to marry her (as Ben Affleck does in He's Just Not That Into You), we're reminded of the days when Brad Pitt mattered so much that boutiques were selling T shirts that said TEAM ANISTON and TEAM JOLIE.

That was five years ago, and still, Aniston has remained one of Hollywood's most polarizing woman. Even when her own husband left her and coincidentally ended up in Angelina Jolie's arms, many women didn't come to her defense. Instead, they said: "Good for Brad." From that debate, the subtext became a sad refrain: why is Jennifer Aniston still single? Now, it's even sadder, because that's the narrative the actress pushes in her own films. Like Lauren Conrad, she's become her own reality star, a woman whose life on screen is impossible to separate from real life.

How did this happen? In Friends, Aniston played Rachel Green, the rich girl who taught herself to be financially independent, who found men aplenty but ended up with her true love, Ross, and who lost her job at Ralph Lauren only to be offered a better one at Louis Vuitton. She was at times emotionally unstable, yes, but Aniston was joyous (er, happy?) in a way we haven't seen her since the series ended. After Friends went off the air, she had The Break Up of the Decade, followed soon by The Break-Up, the movie. And as she fell further into single-girl status in real life, she kept taking roles that only emphasized that persona onscreen.

That's the problem. As a celebrity, you have to expect a fair amount of tabloid interference—but Aniston takes no pains to explain that, yes, folks, she's really in pain. When she's not crying to Vanity Fair, or moping on television, she's cracking awkward jokes, like during the Marley & Me press run. She told reporters: "Men come and go, but there really is no relationship like the one you have with your dog." This month, after an Elle magazine article cover came out that called her "lonely girl," she was upset with the outcome. But in her complaints, she only affirmed what the article was saying: "I'm not going to ignore the pink elephant in the living room," she said. "It's fine. I can take it. If I'm the emblem for 'this is what it looks like to be the lonely girl getting on with her life,' so be it." Even when she's being praised for her acting skills, she can't ignore this narrative, as if it's her secret power, as if being single and savvy about it is the reason she's so successful. Take the Woman in Film awards, for example, where Aniston was being honored in June. In her speech, she pointed out the obvious: all her film's titles mimic her own sexual struggles. "It started with, well, The Good Girl," she told audiences, referencing her Brad Pitt days. "Then that evolved into Rumor Has It followed by Derailed, and then there was The Break-Up."

Finally, she got to her punch line, telling the room what she was really seeking: "If any of you have a project titled Everlasting Love with an Adult, Stable Male, come to my table."

Don't expect a movie like that anytime soon. It's not that Aniston's films don't do well at the box office—though she's had her fair share of flops (Rumor Has It)—she's still the second-highest-paid actress in Hollywood, according to Forbes. Marley & Me clobbered Pitt's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Christmas Day, though you could argue the biggest draw of the film was her costar, the dog. He's Just Not That Into You was a smash, but it tapped into the Sex and the City crowd, because it was based on a bestselling book. The downside for Aniston is that she didn't play interesting women in either of these movies.

Nor is her character dynamic in Love Happens (spoiler alert!). Jennifer Aniston plays Eloise, a florist with a bouquet of wilting relationships. After her boyfriend cheats on her, she gets hit on by a self-help guru (played by Aaron Eckhart), only to pretend that she's deaf. You see, her character is so pretty and so often charmed by men that she has to fake a disability (or, as Eckhart says, "pretend to be Helen Keller") to bat the men away. While watching, you can imagine this trick is something the real-life Jennifer Aniston uses—is that how she was able to tolerate John Mayer? Finally, Eloise and Eckhart's Dr. Phil character go on a really bad first date, which progresses into some really awkward moments on a telephone truck—no, there's no kissing—which turns into a completely different movie about how Eckhart's character never really got over the death of his ex-wife. In the end, we sort of get back to the relationship that started an hour ago, but only to acknowledge that it hasn't started yet: Eckhart admits that, the whole movie, he's been a guy that wasn't really available.

It's the ultimate Aniston plotline: she gets cheated on, then she pursues a man who can't yet date her, and the whole audience leaves the movie hoping that sometime, far in the future, Aniston (or Eloise?) will be happily esconced in a man's life. But Aniston's now 40, and you have to wonder how long she can keep playing these characters. And, more importantly, after decades of hand-wringing uncertainty, whether we'll ever see that happy ending that keep eluding her. "That was sad, sad, wow, just sad," said a 20-something girl, as she was leaving an early screening. Her friend responded: "It wasn't even feel-good; it was just pathetic, right?" That's not the kind of thing you want people saying about your movies--or your love life.