The Object of My Affection : Sexual Frustration in Brooklyn

Here’s a simple multiple-choice question on the subject of gender politics. Are you (a) gay, (b) straight, (c) both, (d) does not apply, or (e) undecided but still working on it? Choose any option and you’ll find there’s something for you in The Object of My Affection , one of the happiest, most intelligent and life-affirming American films in years. Described by producer Laurence Mark as a contemporary romantic comedy-drama “that pushes the tender lines between love, sex and friendship,” this is one movie that lives up to its promise. Mr. Mark should know. He also produced Jerry Maguire and As Good as It Gets , two films with an enormously popular response from vast audiences in search of human values you seldom find in TV sitcoms. If you liked either of those runaway hits, you will love The Object of My Affection .

In her first produced screenplay, Wendy Wasserstein has constructed a many-layered Maypole dance of unrequited love among bright, confused and sexually frustrated New Yorkers. And celebrated director Nicholas Hytner has directed these various relationships with enormous sympathy, compassion and humor, to bless us all with that rarest of experiences–a movie that is lovely and polished, with something human and powerful to say about the survival of the heart.

A feisty, independent and newly pregnant social worker named Nina Borowski (Jennifer Aniston) meets a charming, clean-cut first-grade teacher named George Hanson (Paul Rudd) at a dinner party and accidentally hears his handsome college professor lover (Timothy Daly) drop a hint that George is about to be unceremoniously dumped in favor of a younger student. Nina has a roomy, walk-up apartment in Brooklyn, so she offers George a place to stay. George accepts, and the most important relationship of their lives hits the ground running, despite the objections of a lively cast of annoying busybodies. Nina’s boyfriend, a civil liberties lawyer named Vince (John Pankow), her snobbish, interfering stepsister Constance (the wonderful Allison Janney) and her name-dropping brother-in-law Sidney, a pretentious literary agent played with maddening panache by Alan Alda, all object to Nina’s new living arrangement. Meanwhile, Constance is always trying to fix Nina up with suitable bachelors who bore her; George has seen enough insincerity with his brother Frank (Steve Zahn) and his string of discarded bimbos; and Vince goes ballistic when Nina decides to raise their baby with her gay roommate instead of him.

Isolating themselves from so much invasive stress, Nina and George find in each other the fun, trust and friendship they never found in their sexual partners, and become a surrogate family. George doesn’t even miss men so much when he’s with Nina, and neither does she. Up to this point, what I missed was logic. I suppose this sort of thing could happen, but don’t you have to become a Scientologist or something?

Never underestimate the heart or the wisdom of Wendy Wasserstein. Every time the plot edges toward incredulity, she sends her characters into a more truthful direction. True, Nina falls in love with George and the inevitable jealousies and resentments ensue, but Ms. Wasserstein is not saying women are by nature possessive as much as she’s asking if this kind of relationship can ever work at all. George meets a man he can finally relate to, a young actor (Amo Gulinello) who is being kept by an aging drama critic (played by the great Nigel Hawthorne), and Nina even tries to include them all, but when the old critic says in a moment of intimacy, “Have you noticed you’re the only woman at your Thanksgiving table? And the only practicing heterosexual?” she finally realizes she hasn’t been practicing lately. It’s time to face the music. George is happy and well adjusted being gay; Nina is the one bricking herself in at the most vulnerable time of her life, and she’s also on the dangerous verge of turning into a New York fag hag in the bargain. Nina’s point of view is, You have to pick one person and make it work. Ms. Wasserstein’s question is, Can this work at all if the object of affection is gay, married, or, in other words, emotionally unavailable?

Wonderful performances filled with understated radiance and courage aid the film immeasurably. (It’s the best role of Ms. Aniston’s career, and the camera is in love with Mr. Rudd.) But it’s really Ms. Wasserstein’s spin on modern sexual confusion and the always changing nature of relationships that gives this extraordinary film its luminous center. She’s opened up the beloved novel by Stephen McCauley in rich and surprising ways, filled the spaces with smart, engaging lines (“George lives with a woman.” “Really? How Bloomsbury!”) and revealed something about her own capacity for nonjudgmental clemency in the process. Everything she feels about these people, with all of their disappointments and broken hearts, is processed and refined into a film of gentle, yet unflinchingly honest observations we can all identify with. If she’s jaded about ideal love, she hasn’t lost her elation about the possibility that it may still exist. (It’s no accident that the film’s theme song is Gene Kelly singing “You Were Meant for Me.”)

In the end, when you see how everyone turns out, you are left with an overwhelming optimism. In life, and especially in a big city, where sex is like a Chinese menu and love affairs are fleeting, you are lucky if the joy and pain and loss of your relationships add up to an extended cosmic family of friendships. There are no villains and victims in The Object of My Affection , just people going through the same ups and downs as you and me. It’s brainy, touching and absolutely enchanting. I always say I’m one of those tough guys who hasn’t shed a tear in a movie since Lassie Come Home , but The Object of My Affection proves me a liar.

The Preppie Kidnapping

Another major surprise: Suicide Kings may be the most brilliantly conceived crime puzzle since The Usual Suspects . In a sudden and rather baffling overload of movies about phony kidnap capers gone awry, this is the only one I couldn’t figure out from the first scene. Written by a talented trio of sleuths (Josh McKinney, Gina Goldman and Wayne Allan Rice), strongly and confidently directed by Peter O’Fallon, who is making an impressive feature film debut, and starring an exceptional cast of bristling and gifted actors, Suicide Kings is a real sleeper.

When a reckless rich kid (Henry Thomas) whose sister has been kidnapped by hoods recruits four of his prep school pals to take a retired gangster (Christopher Walken) hostage in order to raise a $2 million ransom, they have no idea what they’re getting into. Mr. Walken, as an ex-mobster named Carlo Bartolucci who now calls himself Charlie Barrett, finds himself tied to a wheelchair, drugged and defenseless, with a finger missing, but he’s not down for the count by a long shot. The boys, who have more nerve than sense, are in over their preppy heads while their hostage, who could kill them in a wink, also becomes their only ally. While the old crook watches coldly and wryly, trying to stay alive long enough to outwit his captors, the boys get an unforgettable taste of the real underworld and discover it ain’t like the movies.

Charlie is so tough he’s “got guys who could make the Virgin Mary pose for a centerfold” and the privileged, overindulged rich kids, with more arrogance than brains, see their simple plan land them on the dark side of the moon. Meanwhile, the film explores the divergent personalities of the boys as well as the activities of an assortment of goons on the outside (where were movie criminals before cell phones?) while a much more complicated plot unravels snafus and double-crosses that will keep you paralyzed with suspense. There are fresh twists throughout, every kid is hiding a secret, the kidnapping may or may not be real, and everything builds to a hair-raising climax that will curl your socks.

The cast is as fresh as the screenplay. Mr. Thomas, all grown up since E.T. , is more sinister than his baby face implies, and his co-conspirators–Jeremy Sisto, Jay Mohr, Johnny Galecki and especially Sean Patrick Flanery, a newcomer with so much talent and appeal he lights a torch to the camera–all seem destined for stardom. Denis Leary, as a hit man with a passion for exotic shoes, and Mr. Walken, as the Mafia don who hasn’t forgotten how to act like one, are rivetingly crazy. Suicide Kings has some stunningly executed action sequences, the characterizations have depth, the use of locations, décor and music is inspired. A don’t-miss entertainment of broiling intensity. The Object of My Affection : Sexual Frustration in Brooklyn