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Awed Couple

Give all the folks who finally got The Object of My Affection to the multiplex credit for perseverance. In the course of its decade-long journey from page to screen, this much-troubled tale about the unrequited love affair of a heterosexual social worker and a gay first-grade teacher has gone through potential leading ladies (Winger, Sedgwick, Parker, Thurman, Ryder), possible leading men (Downey Jr., Reeves) and studio backers (Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox) like a horny president goes through bimbos.

How about script versions? Playwright Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) says she's reworked Stephen McCauley's novel a dozen times since 1988.

In the end, Fox put up the dough, Friends star Jennifer Aniston and Clueless heartthrob Paul Rudd wound up in the starring roles, and Crucible director Nicholas Hytner found himself in the canvas chair. Wasserstein was finally able to stop typing.

Here's the surprise. Despite its long history of fear and loathing, Object was worth the wait. The gay-straight collisions in Chasing Amy and My Best Friend's Wedding may have cleared a path through taboo out California way, but Hytner's movie is no pale imitation of anything else. Part romantic farce, part meditation on love, it addresses head-on the thorny issues of carnality and commitment. What is the essence of a lasting relationship? How important is sex? What do people really see in each other? Wasserstein, Hytner and their nice cast get to the heart of the matter, but on gossamer wings.

The emotionally compatible but physically mismatched young couple here, Nina Borowski and George Hanson, are thrown together when his gay lover jilts him and she discovers the need for a roommate to share her Brooklyn apartment. Soon they are soulmates, and when Nina discovers she is pregnant by her control-freak boyfriend, Vince (John Pankow), she and George verge into new definitions of concepts such as love, dependency and parenthood.

"The old rules don't apply," Nina announces. "We can make this up for ourselves."

Easier said than done. The sweetest moments in Object are the ones in which Nina and George really do reinvent the world ("Do you think most married couples are as happy as we are?" he asks); the most poignant ones come when they must confront the limitations of friendship and the demons of lust. Aniston and Rudd may not have been first choices, but they slip into odd couplehood with the ease of old pros. One example: George and Nina take dance lessons together, and the polished tango they perform at a wedding is a masterpiece of bittersweet irony.

The supporting characters are vivid, too. Tim Daly's Joley, the George Bernard Shaw scholar who's thrown George over for a younger man, provides a wicked comic portrait of academic snobbery, and Alan Alda's social-climbing literary agent, Sidney Miller, could give absurdity lessons to Woody Allen. Hytner has also recruited the English master Nigel Hawthorne, whom he directed in The Madness of King George, to play a caustic theater critic named Rodney Fraser. Call this Wasserstein's revenge if you like, but the movie has the sense not only to satirize poor Rodney, but to glimpse his depths, too.

Can George and Nina overcome the world's expectations and their own desires? In a sense, in a sense. The real strength of this smart and frequently hilarious film is the generous spirit that underlies the folly of its emotional predicaments. As McCauley, Wasserstein and Hytner would have it, people can improvise new social relationships, can make things up for themselves, can create new forms of family--as long as they recognize the limits. It's a notion that got stuck in studio turnaround for more than a decade, but time and tide finally broke it loose.

--Gallo

The Object of My Affection.
Screenplay by Wendy Wasserstein, from a novel by Stephen McCauley. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. With Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Tim Daly and John Pankow.

 
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