April 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The sitcom ciphers in The Object of My Affection (Twentieth Century Fox) aren’t characters, exactly. They’re bundles of signifiers who move through the world caroming off each other’s readily scannable traits. How do we know that Nina (Jennifer Aniston), a cutely alluring Brooklyn social worker, is stuck with a boyfriend who’s all wrong for her? Because Vince (John Pankow), her steady of several years, is a pushy, loudmouth jerk — a lawyer — with bad hair, ratty teeth, and a smarmy way of needling people about their insecurities. It’s anyone’s guess how these two ever made it past the second date.

How do we know that Nina has fallen for her new roommate, George (Paul Rudd), a sweet, cherubically sexy — and openly gay — first-grade teacher who has just been dumped by a loutish lover of his own? Because the two become touchy-feely soul mates within five minutes and proceed to take ballroom-dance classes together. Adapted from Stephen McCauley’s 1987 novel by the playwright Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) and directed by Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible), The Object of My Affection has been spun out of the familiar urban coffee-klatch myth that the only guys left who are attractive and nice have to be gay. The movie inevitably plays like an extension of the final scene of My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which Julia Roberts had to settle for Rupert Everett’s snappish gay comrade in lieu of a husband. There’s a bizarre, pre-feminist masochism to these new women’s pictures: They’re saying that the heroines have been so beaten down by their minuscule romantic options that they have given up even trying to find sex and love in the same place.

When Nina discovers that she’s pregnant (by Vince, incidentally), she makes a revolutionary decision: She’ll have the baby and raise it with George, her platonic best friend/symbolic husband. George, though, falls for a hot young actor, and Nina is forced to spend the rest of the film confronting the revelation the audience has long ago come to: that this ”progressive” arrangement is doomed to fail.

Nina, of course, never displays the slightest interest in trying to find — dare I even say it? — a heterosexual boyfriend. Instead of gently suggesting that she may be running away from life, the film supports her anxious withdrawal from the dating wars by turning everyone on screen into a one-dimensional cad. As if Vince weren’t Mr. Wrong enough, Nina’s name-dropping stepsister (Allison Janney) tries to set her up with a slogan-spouting advertising executive (Bradley White). The stepsister is married to an unctuous literary superagent (Alan Alda), and George’s brother (Steve Zahn) is a horny-snake physician who rotates ”fiancees.” Is it any wonder Nina is lonely? Wasserstein, it’s clear, intends these characters to parody modern relationship perils, but there’s a difference between acknowledging romantic unhappiness and wallowing in desperation. The Object of My Affection is so riddled with cultural stereotypes, woe-is-me neurotic mopiness, and glib therapeutic compassion that by the end all it leaves you with is a waxy buildup of falseness. C-

111 minutes
Nicholas Hytner
20th Century Fox Film Corporation
Complete Coverage

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