The premise — what if a woman and her gay male friend fell in love? — is imported from Stephen McCauley’s novel of a few years ago, yet The Object of My Affection feels like a synthesis of Chasing Amy (where the scenario was reversed) and In & Out (in which a well-liked teacher becomes confused about his sexuality). McCauley focused on the gay character, George (Paul Rudd); the movie’s scripter, Wendy Wasserstein, focuses on the bewildered Nina (Jennifer Aniston), who allows George to move in with her after his self-absorbed lover (Tim Daly) dumps him for some hunky student.
The shift in focus defuses what might have been fresh in the story. Instead of Nina being the Other who makes George’s life a mess of confusion, it’s George who’s the Other. Everything in the movie is seen in terms of how it affects Nina. I’m not saying Wendy Wasserstein isn’t a skilled writer. She is — when it comes to Nina. We feel Nina’s frustration, her yearning for independence, her dissatisfaction with her condescending boyfriend Vince (John Pankow). That’s partly due to the writing, which has been felt from the inside out, and partly due to Jennifer Aniston’s wistful performance.
George, however, is fairly opaque. His emotions aren’t dramatized; they’re told to us in speeches. Paul Rudd’s blandness in the role (he’s been more charming elsewhere) doesn’t help, either. George is a woman’s dream date: a handsome, sensitive man who won’t try anything sleazy. George hardly tries anything sleazy with men, either. For most of the movie he’s a poster boy for cuddly gay normality — softened to appeal to the homophobes in the audience. (It didn’t work at the show I attended. A peck on the mouth between George and a new lover provoked sounds of disgust from the teenagers around me. This is a good time to point out that I heard no retching when two women kissed in Wild Things. But I digress.)
At first glance, The Object of My Affection doesn’t seem to fit with director Nicholas Hytner’s other two films, The Madness of King George and The Crucible. Those were historical dramas based on plays. This is a modern romantic comedy-drama that feels like a play (the movie’s rhythm and pace are very slack). There is a theme running through the films: the impact that forbidden or “inappropriate” passions can have on an uncomprehending society. Yet Nina and George encounter almost no resistance (even the jilted Vince basically washes his hands of Nina). George doesn’t take any static from gay friends for getting chummy with a breeder. Nina seems to have no friends other than good old George.
What seemed like hyperbolic rhetoric in movies like Jungle Fever and Go Fish, where characters’ sex lives were subjected to political scrutiny by their friends, now seems like a better dramatic deal than what goes on in this movie. Which is to say, nothing much. Even Nina’s pregnancy feels inconsequential. Stand aside from the movie for a moment, look at it from a detached viewpoint, and what you see is a selfish woman who wants to have the best of all worlds — the baby, the non-threatening gay man waiting for her to decide that she wants him — and who comes close to ruining poor George’s life. The story could certainly have been told that way (and might have been in the novel, which I haven’t read). It sure isn’t told that way here. If it were, it would stop being a chick flick and start being an intelligent film for adults of all genders and sexual orientations. I’m sorry, should I not have expected a movie like that? I can be so naïve sometimes.