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Highlighting Stereotypes is Not Funny

FILM

THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION

Directed by Nicholas Hynter

Starring Jennifer Aniston & Paul Rudd

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Opens April 17

For some strange, inexplicable reason, you'll find yourself cringing during The Object of My Affection. Cringing, you ask? Oddly enough, the movie induces nervousness. It's an uncomfortable two hours that never really satisfies or does more than superficially entertain.

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The Object of My Affection walks the tightrope on a number of boundary lines--hanging dangerously between comedy and melodrama, intelligence and triteness, and between politically correct and glaring offensive. But it never finds its "zone." The movie seems unnecessarily forced and cautious. "Laugh at this!" it tells you. "Cry now!" it yells. In between these climactic urges for audience emotion, The Object of My Affection stomps all over thin ice. Though mindfully tries for fluffy appeal, it ends up cracking under the weight of its cautiousness.

Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd star in this adaptation of Stephen Macaulay's heralded novel about the complex and unique relationship between a pregnant New York woman and her gay roommate. At a dinner party, George Hanson (Paul Rudd) learns from Nina (Jennifer Aniston), a total stranger, that he's about to be dumped by his college professor boyfriend (a disastrously miscast Tim Daly). Fortunately, Nina is sympathetic and almost unrealistically trusting, offering him the spare room in her Brooklyn apartment. George accepts Nina's generous invitation--and their relationship predictably begins.

The movie uses a series of montages saturated with stereotypes to track the "developing" friendship of Nina and George. (They go to amusement parks. They watch videos together in makeshift slumber parties. And, yes, they go dancing.) The complication, of course, is Nina's boyfriend, Vince (John Pankow), an outspoken civil liberties lawyer who naturally resents George's intrusion. Tension builds until the bomb explodes: Nina announces her pregnancy and her desire to raise the baby with George instead of Vince.

The Object of My Affection is directed by Nicholas Hytner, the man responsible for the intense, fiery The Madness of King George and The Crucible. Whereas with those films, the attention centered on the passionate and dramatic acting, his sparse directing style makes this movie feel slightly sitcom-ish. The scenes don't particularly flow well (some parts scream for commercial breaks), and it jumps from melodrama to obvious comic relief without much attempt at subtlety. Hytner seems lost as to what genre the movie actually belongs in. Rare scenes echo with the light, schmaltzy appeal of a romantic comedy, some seem amateurish (reminiscent of high school plays), and others are bogged down in unnecessarily messy melodrama. The movie reeks of heavy editing; any momentum built in a scene is promptly lost in the next one.

The script is schizophrenic. While Macaulay's book is known for its intensive character studies of Nina and George, Wendy Wasserstein's script idles with the addition of random, irrelevant characters. Alan Alda and Allison Janey appear in small supporting roles to fit the screen with comic relief whenever the cheese becomes unbearable. Nigel Hawthorne, a Hytner mainstay, is thrown into the movie for no apparent reason (other than to give a tedious monologue where he works in the title of the movie.) Even worse, the script is unsure of itself-the declarations of love between various sets of characters are intolerably stilted. When Wasserstein tries to create intensely emotional moments between George and his significant others, the movie degenerates entirely. (One exchange between George and his professor boyfriend might have been read off of cue cards.)

Though her character on "Friends" and her role in Picture Perfect have made Jennifer Aniston a symbol of exasperating whininess, she delivers an impressively nuanced performance as Nina. For once, she refrains from flustered annoyance and genuinely portrays a sympathetic character who must balance pragmatism with her own sexual frustrations.

From the outset, Nina knows she's going to lose the battle to win George's love. Aniston makes us understand why she keeps fighting the self-defeating war.

Rudd, best known for his suave Alicia-charming role in Clueless, doesn't have a particularly difficult role. He is labeled the martyr from the outset, the "object of affection" that Aniston will sweat, cry and bleed over from beginning to end. Though he successfully avoids stereotypes, even Rudd seems sometimes uncomfortable with the dangerously unpredictable script. His character ultimately lacks coherence.

The Object of My Affection certainly has its moments. Whenever Alda and Janey appear to give Aniston advice, the movie leaps into Woody Allen conversational mode, producing jewels of unbelievable hilarity.

The movie has its obligatory "gay" jokes and gratuitous dinner scenes that try to force a romantic comedy "feel"--but the momentum never lasts. In a sense, the filmmakers have tried to make a touchy-feely "gay movie," the type of comedy that mainstream audiences can embrace.

Yet, one has to wonder about this kind of ambition--The Birdcage was a world-wide smash, but that film was grounded in the novelty of exaggerating gay stereo-types. The Object of My Affection, on the other hand, aims for tenuous realism. Ultimately, this reality is fatally compromised. In trying to make a romantic comedy/melodrama that will be universally loved, the audience is left with a fluffy, unsatisfying corpse of a movie that barely registers at all.

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