Friday April 17, 1998
It's hard not to feel, well, affection for the characters in "The Object of My Affection." Are not George Hanson (Paul Rudd) and Nina Borowski (Jennifer Aniston) sweet and funny, and aren't the Wendy Wasserstein lines they deliver more amusing than not? Yes, but just as these two face trouble in their relationship, so this film has trouble delivering on its intriguing premise.
This is apparently the season for romantic obstacles. While last week's "City of Angels" tried pairing human and celestial lovers, "Object" presents us with two handsome young people on the way to becoming wild about each other. The difficulty this time is that George is gay and Nina is straight and neither is thinking of changing.
More than that, when these two meet, both are in serious relationships. George, who teaches first grade at a fancy Manhattan private school, is involved with Dr. Joley (Tim Daly), a college professor with literary aspirations. Nina, a social worker who counsels teenage girls, is dating Vince McBride (John Pankow), a penniless but obstreperous legal aid lawyer.
The two meet at the home of Nina's stepsister Constance (Allison Janney) and her husband Sidney (Alan Alda), who have a child in George's class. They get along well enough that when George needs a place to stay, Nina's spare room in Brooklyn seems the most obvious solution.
Under Nicholas Hytner's direction, "The Object of My Affection" is at its best showing the strong, caring and nonsexual love that develops between George and Nina. As played by the immensely likable Rudd and the perky Aniston, these two have believable fun together, whether they're ballroom-dancing or sharing a late-night ice cream snack. And having amusing characters around the story's periphery, like eagle-eyed landlady Mrs. Sarni (Marilyn Dobrin), helps a great deal.
The complications rise a notch when Nina gets pregnant and decides she wants to raise the child not with Vince, the father she doesn't get along with, but with George. Though George agrees after some hesitation, neither one of them gives much thought to what will happen if the serpent of sexual attraction, either toward each other or to someone else, ever rears its head in this idyllic platonic relationship. Which, of course, it does.
"The Object of My Affection" wants to be wise and adult in addition to amusing, but the nature of its plot development makes its characters more involving than the problems they encounter. Despite likable leads and a promising premise, the film's people make choices at variance with the honesty of their performances. The result: an inability to deliver on what's promised emotionally.
Wasserstein's script, which she worked on for 10 years, is so major a departure from Stephen McCauley's charming novel that director Hytner has accurately called it "a free cinematic adaptation of the novel rather than a slavish retelling of it." There's nothing wrong with this in theory, of course. The problem in practice is that the changes, made in the name of greater audience accessibility, have made the story less emotionally compelling.
McCauley's novel was told first person from George's point of view. So when, as is inevitable, George gets seriously attracted to another man, the book gains much of its poignancy from how torn he is by trying to decide between two different and mutually exclusive kinds of love, the terrific bond he feels with Nina and the new sexual passion he feels for someone else.
The film, by contrast, is told from no specific point of view, and Nina's romantic and sexual needs are given full weight. A fine idea, perhaps, but giving everyone equal time means a wholesale jettisoning of the book's second half and the creation of numerous new characters to balance things out.
Some of these new people, particularly a drama critic played by Nigel Hawthorne (who starred in the Hytner-directed "The Madness of King George"), are engaging, but the changes have the effect of eliminating the focus on George's choice. What's substituted is a generic and uninspiring scenario about how sad unrequited love is when you're the one not getting loved back.
There isn't any reason why that sequence shouldn't have been as affecting as the original, but it simply is not. Perhaps that 10 years' worth of backing and filling and contrivance, which was needed to tidy up a different kind of story so it would fit into a conventional mold, took a greater toll than anyone anticipated. "The Object of My Affection" is an honorable and affecting attempt at something out of the ordinary, but it plays less like a breakthrough than an opportunity lost.
The Object of My Affection, 1998. R, for strong language and some sexuality. Jennifer Anniston Nina BorowskiCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times