A very vanilla romantic tale about an attempt at a design for living between a gay man and a woman with a baby on the way, "The Object of My Affection" tries to mix the messy realities of mismatched relationships with the structural neatness of a musical-comedy view of the world, with mild, occasionally diverting results.

A very vanilla romantic tale about an attempt at a design for living between a gay man and a woman with a baby on the way, “The Object of My Affection” tries to mix the messy realities of mismatched relationships with the structural neatness of a musical-comedy view of the world, with mild, occasionally diverting results. This second Fox star vehicle for Jennifer Aniston proves marginally more palatable than last year’s “Picture Perfect,” but the plot’s hokey contrivances and the theatrical shtick tend to prevail over the sporadic moments of insight and emotional truth. An attractive cast, a few pleasant chuckles and low-voltage sexual frissons don’t look to be enough to turn this into anything more than a modest B.O. performer.

At its heart the story of a young man and woman who close their eyes to nature in the naive hope that their deep romantic friendship will somehow transcend their irreconcilable basic instincts, Nicholas Hytner’s highly polished third film presents a pretty dim outlook on the prospects for successful heterosexual relationships, but displays a gay world rife with possibilities. While the woman’s difficult and profound decisions represent the picture’s ostensible focus, it is the rather more mysterious and fluid interactions of the men that often command more interest.

Setting a theatrical tone at the outset with a first-grade production of “The Little Mermaid,” Wendy Wasserstein’s script throws the principal characters together at an upscale dinner party hosted by an A-list literary agent (Alan Alda) and his quip-equipped wife (Allison Janney). Latter’s attractive stepsister Nina (Aniston), attending solo sans b.f. Vince (John Pankow), inadvertently informs a nice, similarly attractive fellow, George (Paul Rudd), that the latter’s attractive lover, Robert (Tim Daly), also in attendance, is dumping him, although Robert hasn’t told George yet.

Once he gives Robert a piece of his mind, George takes up Nina’s invitation to lick his wounds while staying in a spare room at her place, a modest Brooklyn walk-up complete with an all-seeing first-floor yenta. For her part, Nina, who claims to be a social worker but, from the evidence, functions more as a sexual adviser to local teens, will use George, a schoolteacher, as a buffer to keep the overbearing Vince, a left-wing labor lawyer, at bay.

What Nina and George don’t count on is falling, at least sort of, in love. Their bond is strengthened over latenight kitchen gab fests when Nina leaves a sleeping Vince in bed after sex because she feels more of a connection with her gay roommate. They also take regular dance lessons down at the old folks’ community center, where they twirl into a heady romance to the strains of Gershwin’s “You Were Meant for Me”; they’re both just too cute and cuddly for words.

The giddy good times end, however, a half-hour in when Nina announces to George that she’s pregnant. Unwilling to speak to Vince, the father, about it until she decides what to do, Nina finally makes up her mind to have the baby. But in a foolhardy moment, she asks her soul mate, George, if he would stay on to raise the kid with her in place of the unwanted Vince.

Of course, if George were to refuse, there wouldn’t be much movie left. But his resolution to stay, as well as his insistence that things will never change, is exasperating in its willful shortsightedness; while it takes ages for Nina and George to realize that their special arrangement won’t work on a permanent basis, it’s immediately clear to the viewer that George needs to get out of Nina’s apartment right away to force her to come to terms with Vince and her pregnancy.

As Nina’s belly begins to grow, so returns George’s interest in seeing men. Meeting the occasional fellow he might consider as a partner, George also runs into men from his past, including a contrite Robert, who takes him on a weekend getaway to a scholarly conference where they meet waspish old drama critic Rodney Fraser (Nigel Hawthorne) and the latter’s boy of the moment, Paul (Amo Gulinello).

Out in the Connecticut countryside, George and Paul hit it off big-time, which eventually forces everyone in their orbit to take stock and sort out the truth about their emotional lives.

Under Hytner’s spry direction, the many interpersonal cross-currents are delineated in deft fashion, even if they run mainly on the surface. Paul’s tangle of acquaintances and relationships is passable fun to sort out, and Hawthorne brings welcome touches of Old World charm and pathos to an otherwise relentlessly modern milieu.

But the film is so breezy that one never feels the pain and trauma the characters are experiencing. Despite its seriousness, Nina’s quandary hardly registers more urgently than a sitcom dilemma that will sort itself out after enough hoops have been passed through, and Aniston, while pleasant, doesn’t bring any depth or unexpected notes to the role.

Rudd bears up pretty well under the constraints of his nice-guy role, and the actor has a way of suggesting that something else is going on in his mind beyond the specifics of the scene, lending George more weight than is apparent on the page. Alda and Janney are amusing in hopelessly one-dimensional parts, and the numerous men on hand have been cast with an attentive eye to their good looks.

Pic’s physical production is plush, with Jane Musky’s production design, John Dunn’s costumes and Oliver Stapleton’s lensing all contributing strongly to make New York look like a romantic wonderland.

The Object of My Affection

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Laurence Mark production. Produced by Mark. Co-producer, Diana Pokorny. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Screenplay, Wendy Wasserstein, based on the novel by Stephen McCauley.

With

Nina Borowski - Jennifer Aniston George Hanson - Paul Rudd Sidney Miller - Alan Alda Rodney Fraser - Nigel Hawthorne Vince McBride - John Pankow Dr. Robert Joley - Tim Daly Constance Miller - Allison Janney Frank Hanson - Steve Zahn Paul James - Amo Gulinello Dr. Goldstein - Bruce Altman Louis Crowley - Kevin Carroll Sally Miller - Lauren Varija Pratt
Camera (Duart color), Oliver Stapleton; editor, Tariq Anwar; music, George Fenton; production designer, Jane Musky; art director, Patricia Woodbridge; set decorator, Susan Bode; costume designer, John Dunn; sound (Dolby digital), Michael Barosky; associate producer, Petra Alexandria; assistant director, Sam Hoffman; casting, Daniel Swee. Reviewed at the Chinese Theater, L.A., April 7, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.

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