No subject, I suppose, can be categorically ruled out of bounds, but some subjects are a hell of a lot more difficult to pull off than others, and among the most difficult – the most embarrassing, the most awkward – is the love of a woman for a gay man. Such a relationship can be done gently and wistfully (Helen Hunt’s fondness for Greg Kinnear in As Good As It Gets), and it can be done as farce. But if the woman’s love is obsessive and needy, the story becomes stupid and painful, and that is what happens in The Object of My Affection, the Stephen McCauley novel that has been adapted for the movies with disastrous panache by playwright Wendy Wasserstein and director Nicholas Hytner. Jennifer Aniston plays Nina, a snippy-snappy young social worker in Brooklyn who takes as a roommate a lovable gay teacher, George (Paul Rudd). When Nina is made pregnant by her overbearing and unsuitable boyfriend (John Pankow), she asks George to raise the child with her. But Nina wants George’s sexual love as well, and although George is willing to be daddy, he cannot be lover. Poor Nina is left with nothing to do but throw fits and turn her back in sorrow and furiously wash the dishes. The Object of My Affection is one of those cases, I think, in which the audience is so frustrated by an untenable situation onscreen that it shuts down on the movie: Paul Rudd is charming, and some of the scenes are intelligently written and played, but at a recent screening people on all sides of me were squirming in discomfort. Dramatically, The Object of My Affection has nowhere to go. Nigel Hawthorne shows up as a dapper old drama critic who loves a younger man, and he offers Nina rueful and worldly advice about her dilemma – the movie turns immensely sophisticated about the dumb situation it should never have allowed to develop in the first place.
Just when the country was beginning to like New York again, this picture comes along and ruins everything. Wasserstein has added to McCauley’s rather modest novel all sorts of New York-style patter, and most of it is excruciating – the nervous, self-conscious chatter of a name-dropping literary agent (Alan Alda), the tense aggressions of his equally name-dropping and unhappy wife (Allison Janney), and much more. Since the two characters are extraneous to the plot, who is dropping names but Wendy Wasserstein? There are scenes that are supposed to satirize the pretensions of powerful, knowing people, scenes that are themselves exactly an example of the display that is being satirized. And the movie takes New York’s ethnic and sex-preference variety to the point of boastful folly. The Object of My Affection is not just pro-gay (which is fine) and pro-diversity (ditto); it is programmatically and cheerfully committed to mixing everybody and everything together, as if life were just a problem that could be sorted out by creative casting at the Public Theater. This is the kind of fatuously self-approving movie that could bring Rush Limbaugh springing back to life.