The Object of My Affection
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
20th Century Fox
It was only a decade ago that Stephen McCauley published his first novel, The Object of My Affection, and startled his readers by having his gay protagonist, George, move in with a flaky Brooklyn social worker, Nina, and agree to be a father to her unborn child. It wasn't that either of the two plot strands (the end of George's affair with a self-absorbed professor and start of another with a Vermont ex-hippie; Nina's decision not to marry the blowhard father of her baby) broke new ground, only that the mixture raised modern and entertaining questions: Why would this woman feel more comfortable raising a child with a homosexual man than with a heterosexual one? Could two adults who love each other but aren't in love with each other stay together under such sexless circumstances? Could the gay guy convert--and, if so, would the conversion take? McCauley's writing is mild and rather shapeless, but he gropes honestly for some new design for living. He wins the reader over as much for what he doesn't do--take cheap shots at his characters--as for the breadth of his observations. The book is gratifyingly unslick.
The film that Nicholas Hytner has directed (from a screenplay by the playwright Wendy Wasserstein) is slick, sweet, and disastrously unmoving--even people who live to cry at the movies will find themselves depressingly dry-eyed. Hytner, an Englishman who made his name in theater (his 1994 revival of Carousel at the Lincoln Center had real weight and scope), hasn't figured out how to create intimacy with his characters on-screen or how to direct his actors so they expose themselves in the myriad microscopic ways stage actors can't. Hytner doesn't overhype his images or call attention to his own directorial hand, as he did in The Madness of King George (1994) and The Crucible (1996). But the film is just as stagy and arm's-length. It's anyone's guess what The Object is supposed to be about.
A big part of the problem is Jennifer Aniston, who plays Nina as if her confusion is a consequence less of so many modern splintered paradigms than of plain simple-mindedness. Aniston can pout, and let her eyes crinkle up in fatuous happiness, and look moistly maternal. But that's about it. When she tells George (Paul Rudd, directed to be dear) that the father of her child isn't "home" to her, that George is "home," and that they need to throw out the old ways and invent some new ones, the scene has no urgency; she could be talking about where to go for dinner. She isn't a phony--she doesn't risk enough to be phony. Actresses get attention for their hair when they don't draw you in with their features. To demonstrate their growing closeness, Hytner leads the pair through jazzy swing-dance montages, along with scenes in which they hit each other with pillows (a common cinematic sign of a couple's closeness but not necessarily accurate; as an experiment, I hit my wife with a pillow, and she threw me out of the room).
People I respect were reduced to puddles by Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, although I found it a collection of stereotypes. Still, her stereotypes (in that play) brood engagingly over whether their behavior is too stereotypical. For The Object of My Affection, she has invented an entirely new cast of supporting characters, but they add little that anyone other than a development executive could think this story needs. Allison Janney plays Nina's stepsister, whose husband (Alan Alda) is described, glibly, as the "most powerful literary agent in the world." These two are intended as a foil for the nonjudgmental main characters--the sort of fake liberals who proclaim tolerance out of one side of their mouths and issue snobbish put-downs of gays, blacks, and Brooklyn out of the other. Someone could write a monograph on the role of Brooklyn in movies: It would surely include this one, which ends with a liberal-utopian vision of biracial, bisexual unity in Park Slope. Wasserstein also brings in a weary, aging critic (Nigel Hawthorne) who can echo Nina's plight, watching the object of his own affection drift into the arms of a younger man and delivering elegant monologues on the subject.
Elegant monologues don't help an audience bond with a movie, however. Compare The Object of My Affection with that grisly sitcom tearjerker As Good as It Gets, in which James L. Brooks manages to generate an emotionally compelling movie out of a situation that has nothing--nada--to do with any reality I know of. Brooks doesn't worry much about composing a frame or giving you a sense of place; he came from television, made it big with a TV-style tearjerker (Terms ofEndearment), and knows how to pull you in whether you want to be pulled in or not. Detached ironists such as Hytner might pride themselves on not stooping as low, but sometimes it's the stoopers whom you want to take home for the night.