Picking up Where Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett dared not go in My Best Friend's Wedding, namely the bedroom, Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd unzip for action in The Object of My Affection. She's straight, he's gay. Yet here they are fondling, lip-locking, nearly fucking. You've got to ask: Is there a future in such a relationship? This romantic comedy, directed with a bracing respect for sexual confusion by Nicholas Hyt-ner (The Crucible), tackles the issue with uncommon intelligence and humor, and, OK, the occasional slide into sitcom.
Aniston, a friend in need of a solid movie script -- having been saddled with Picture Perfect, She's the One and 'Til There Was You -- finally gets one courtesy of Tony-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig). In her screenwriting debut, Wasserstein adapts Stephen McCauley's bittersweet 1987 novel with a refreshingly literate snap. She adds new characters and comicm turns without losing the book's spirit.
The most radical point of departure is the point of view. Wasserstein sees the film through Nina Borowski (Aniston), a New York social worker who learns she's pregnant by Vince Mc-Bride (John Pankow), the lawyer she dates but doesn't love. McCauley chose to write his novel from the perspective of George Hansen (Rudd), the gay grade-school teacher with whom Nina shares her deepest feelings; she also rents him a spare room in her Brooklyn apartment. It's George, a kindred spirit when it comes to food, art and ballroom dancing (they take lessons), whom Nina asks to help raise her child. "What about Vince?" asks George. Says Nina: "He's not home to me -- you are." Problems arise when Nina finds herself sexually drawn to George and George begins to respond.
Got that? George doesn't quite, which makes him a mass of conflicted feelings and the story's most compelling character. Despite a beguiling turn by Aniston, who keeps showing promise of growing beyond her TV roots, the movie belongs to Rudd, who is effortlessly terrific. Best known as Alicia Silverstone's stepbrother turned boyfriend in Clueless, Rudd has been largely relegated to the background, as in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and The Locusts. No more. This is a performance possessed of the sweet magic that makes a star.
George first meets Nina at a snob dinner party thrown by Nina's sister Constance, played with elegant sass by Allison Janney. Constance, whose husband (Alan Alda) is a name-dropping literary agent, is honoring George for having directed her daughter in the school play.
Happy times until George learns at the party that he is being dumped by his vain lover, Dr. Robert Joley (Tim Daly). That's when Nina invites George to move in. Why not? They're both among the walking romantic wounded.
Hytner, a young British theater director who scored a 1994 smash on both sides of the Atlantic with a passionate revival of Carousel, makes the attraction between George and Nina as intriguing as it is impossible. It's Nina who raises the sexual temperature of the relationship. "Who's the first person you ever slept with?" asks Nina, who is thrilled when George names a girl. Cuddling in bed, Nina puts her hands on George's chest, kisses him hotly and tugs at his pants. George knows they've gone too far; Nina doesn't. To unlight her fire, George brings home a lover, Paul (Amo Gulinello), for noisy sex. Nina feels rejected. Ditto Paul's mentor, an aging drama critic beautifully played by Nigel Hawthorne, who starred for Hytner in the acclaimed stage and screen versions of The Madness of King George. "One shouldn't be too hard on oneself if the object of one's affection returns the favor with less enthusiasm than one might have hoped," says the critic in a futile effort to console Nina and himself.
In these scenes, the film transcends its gay/straight theme to cut to the imbalance at the core of all relationships. Aniston and Rudd show us how friendship is more complicated than sex, which is one reason The Object of My Affection is the most provocative date flick around. Of the pain that follows when the ground shifts under a friendship, McCauley wrote: "We would grow older and our faces would change and one day we would be strangers to each other. And there was nothing to do about it." Those lines aren't in the movie, but their ability to hit home is easy to read in the eloquent eyes of two actors who -- and here's the tricky part -- make something memorably funny and touching out of moonshine.