REVIEW This wry “Object” just can’t commit: Jennifer Aniston is the weak link in a romantic film that explores the nature of relationships

You really want to love “The Object of My Affection.” After all, Oscar nominee Nicholas Hytner (“The Madness of King George”) directed it. Pulitzer Prize-winner Wendy Wasserstein adapted it from the Stephen McCauley novel. And Paul Rudd stars in it. If anything, “The Object of My Affection” should push Rudd (“Clueless, ” “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”) into the upper echelon of leading men with his sweet performance as a gay teacher who finds out from a stranger that he’s been dumped, and now needs a room to rent.

One of the weakest links in “Object” is Jennifer Aniston as Nina Borowski, a social worker with high-society connections who offers Rudd a place to live. Aniston is not entirely to blame, although she hasn’t been one of the fortunate “Friends” to make a compelling big-screen presence. She gives a perfectly workmanlike performance as the woman who finds herself drawn to her accidental roommate George Hanson (Rudd).

Part of the problem lies in the film’s hurried pacing. Relationships develop quickly and mostly offscreen, whether it’s Nina’s immediate bonding with her teen-age discussion group or the camaraderie between Nina and George. Their Friday-night dance lessons at the community center become cinematic shorthand for their building affection; the film consciously acknowledges this device with music and even a scene from “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Throughout all this, Nina has a “Bolshevik lawyer” boyfriend, Vince, played by John Pankow yes, cousin Ira from “Mad About You.” The turnabout comes when Nina discovers she’s pregnant with Vince’s child and wants to raise the baby with George. This is no love triangle, but a web of goofy, tangled relationships and unrequited love.

Of course, it’s understandable why she’d gravitate to the sensitive, good-looking George, still waiflike from his breakup. George himself is inclined towards this mad scheme; he has a classroom full of first-graders, but wants to come home to his own child, too.

This is truly Rudd’s film, as it should be. He already showed promise in the “Clueless” days as stepbrother Josh. Here, Rudd fills nearly every screen moment with an effortless, boyish grace like a young John Cusack. He even fares well with the spectacular Nigel Hawthorne (nominated for best actor for “The Madness of King George”) as the aged theater critic who must love his young actor protg from an emotional distance.

“Object” looks at the ideal of true love, beyond the messy, interfering concerns of desire. George’s ex-lover left him for a young student, his brother has a revolving door for his fiances, Nina feels mismatched with Vince and her high-society stepsister has a serviceable marriage. The tender fondness between Nina and George, despite their incompatible inclinations, seems to be the only real relationship.

The “Will he or won’t he?” question about George inevitably emerges. That tension threatens to regard his homosexuality more as a social construct than biological destiny. After all, he did have a high-school girlfriend, so maybe his sexual pendulum will swing back, or so the movie seems to say. It doesn’t help much that the camera lingers more erotically on Nina’s overtures than George’s far tamer relations as a normal practicing gay man if he ever gets to practice.

This concern wouldn’t emerge so much if Hytner and Wasserstein hadn’t decided to shift from George’s perspective, as it is in McCauley’s novel, to Nina’s. Despite being a good social worker, Nina doesn’t seem much more than a self-involved woman in a progesterone frenzy brought on by her pregnancy. She doesn’t consult with or even talk to Vince for three weeks while she tries to make a decision about her pregnancy. Yes, it’s her body, but he’s her boyfriend, not an anonymous sperm donor.

If Aniston had the masterly nuances of, say, – in comparison to another television actress gone big time Helen Hunt, she could have invested Nina with more richness. As it is, we can’t believe her intentions are more than fantasies she created from watching too many Gene Kelly musicals. Then again, perhaps “Object” deliberately fosters such doubt. Those references to “Singin’ in the Rain” are more than a homage: That classic’s film-within-a-film also looked at how people can utterly lose their identities and the identities of others in the illusions of their own making.

That’s also the strength of the film, to raise these multilayered questions in a plausible scenario. While the shock value of a gay father surrogate is dulled for a ’90s cosmopolitan audience (the book was published in the ’80s), it also means that it doesn’t detract from the film’s romantic heart: love, friendship and the boundaries they can and cannot transcend.

While “Object” may not win undying devotion except from romance fans, its ensemble cast and wry, comic poignancy certainly deserve an affectionate appreciation. Maybe we can all just be friends.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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