Film: Right girl, wrong gender

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The Independent Culture
The Object of My Affection Director: Nicholas Hytner Starring: Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Running time: 111 mins THE HEROINE of the bubbly 1995 comedy Clueless lived happily ever after with her step-brother, played by Paul Rudd, only when her first choice of boyfriend had turned out to be gay. Now it's Rudd's turn to play "Crush the Straight Girl" for the new romantic comedy The Object of My Affection, in which he confounds his flat-mate's dreams of wedding vows and joint burial plots by going and dancing at the other end of the ballroom, so to speak. Now what does he want to do a thing like that for?

Indeed, this may be the question on the lips of many heterosexual males in the audience, since the desires in question emanate from the bosom of Jennifer Aniston, better known as Rachel in Friends. The worst thing about The Object of My Affection is that the screenwriter, Wendy Wasserstein, who has adapted Stephen McCauley's novel, runs herself ragged trying to please all of the people all of the time, but one of the film's sweetest pleasures is in the casting. Aniston is a jolly enough actress even if, as her recent shampoo ads have proved, there really is no beginning to her talents. Her presence in the picture as Nina, the flatmate of George (Rudd), is purely symbolic - she's there to convince sceptical minds that homosexuality doesn't come in degrees, and it won't wither in the presence of a willing member of the opposite sex, either. The rationale behind this is that if a guy doesn't swoon over Jennifer Aniston, then he must really be serious about all this gay business.

You very quickly get the sense that The Object of My Affection is intended for those viewers whose ideas about homosexuality have been entirely formulated by the media - people who claim to have gay friends when what they really mean is that they once laughed at a Julian Clary joke. It's easy to feel patronised by the movie, so it's best to approach it the way you would a children's film. What is it trying to teach its audience? And does its message emerge unscrambled?

George is a gay school teacher, although I should stress that there's nothing in his conduct that would cause even the mildest heart murmur in the House of Lords. What you get is an effort to dilute and de-fang the image of homosexuality for nervous, straight audiences - to present it as a symbol of comfort, not threat; of diversity rather than perversity. Our introduction to George's sexuality comes when his boyfriend fails to attend the school play which he has directed - a non-threatening domestic situation that a passing character reminds us can be applied to anyone ("If my boyfriend did that..."). Later, we meet an elderly man who announces "Gay? Everyone's gay!", and a woman who is President of the New York Mothers of Latino Lesbians.

Like the recent In And Out, the picture spoofs gay stereotypes while also including enough of them to ensure that viewers who cling to those stereotypes for their only knowledge of homosexuality won't be alienated. This trait may be casually duplicitous, but it's where Wasserstein gets a chance to kick off her shoes, away from worrying about whether Cupid's arrow is going to put somebody's eye out. Nina's sister Constance (the sublime Alison Janney) provides the voice of benign misconception. Greeting George at her dinner party, she babbles excitedly,: "We know RuPaul! We must have him over some time so you two can meet." When she needs help with her centrepiece, it's George she calls on. Meanwhile, Nina's boyfriend prides himself on what he believes is his homo-friendly thought process: "Aren't you guys supposed to stick up for the disenfranchised?" he asks George.

These jokes are dead-ends, though you can't help laughing at the way the film sets up George's ex-lover as the villain - his vanity is bad enough, but when he declares a preference for experimental theatre over Broadway musicals, you have to physically stop yourself hissing.

The director Nicholas Hytner strikes a bargain with his audience which is slightly at odds with his film's personality. In return for tolerance, he pledges not to push his luck by exposing excessive amounts of male flesh. At least not when that male is within kissing distance of another man. When George and Nina slip into tentative physical intimacy, they rack up more close-ups than they know what to do with, but George's subsequent sexual encounters are reduced to a peck on the cheek or a squeeze of the thigh. Hytner, no doubt under considerable pressure, treads very carefully. This time, he works at persuading us that gay people are human. Perhaps in a sequel or two, he will get around to admitting that some of them even have sex.

Although the film picks up where My Best Friend's Wedding left off, wondering what would happen if two pieces of a different jigsaw tried to fit together, it rather depressingly concludes its investigation at exactly the same location. Once more, the gay chum is presented as the latest in a conveyor- belt of accessories which no modern gal should be without. Your first reaction to this is that it's preferable to the equation between homosexuality and homicidal impulses suggested by everything from Diamonds Are Forever to Cruising. Preferable, yes, but no less distorted. The choice of serial- killer or saintly eunuch is no choice at all.

George is ultimately as objectified as the father-and-son double-act whom he witnesses playing catch - a game which has come to symbolise conformity and family values since Field of Dreams. It's that sight which persuades him that he will help Nina raise her baby after all, and it's a credit to Paul Rudd that the scene doesn't drive you to burn down the cinema, or at least drop your hot-dog in disgust. Rudd has a pixieish, Montgomery Clift face and it's either a habit of his to reveal the sparkle in his eyes at regular intervals, or else Hytner has instructed him to do so to provide a distraction from some of his more unforgivably inane lines.

Hytner is a British director, and though he doesn't impose a discernible cultural influence on the picture, there are a few theatrical flourishes which might be ascribed to him, like the opening shot of George emerging not from the closet but from behind the curtains on a stage. He also brings a light, farcical bounce to a chaotic scene in Nina's apartment which ends with a literary agent (Alan Alda in full, verbally diarrhoeic flow) collapsing on the sofa and calling to be fanned - "Is that the New Yorker? Fan me with the New Yorker!" You sense a particular relish in the scenes featuring Rodney, an acerbic theatre critic jubilantly played by Nigel Hawthorne. I had thought this was Hytner's revenge on any poisoned nibs he had encountered during his previous career as a theatre director, only Rodney ends up as the most likeable soul in the film. Sympathetic gay characters are a doddle. But a theatre critic that you'd happily allow into your home? That really takes talent.