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Gambit Weekly Growing Up

By Rick Barton

MAY 11, 1998:  My mother put it somewhat differently than Mick Jagger, who observed, "You can't always get what you want." My mother phrased the proposition, "Growing up means learning not to want what you can't have." I doubt that mom ever took a meeting with author Stephen McCauley, screenwriter Wendy Wasserstein or director Nicholas Hytner, but their new picture, The Object of My Affection, sure seems informed by the principle she drummed into my head over and over when I was a child.

The narrative in The Object of My Affection concerns a young New York social worker named Nina Borowski (Jennifer Aniston), who keeps looking for love in all the wrong places. Nina's well-connected sister, Constance Miller (Allison Janney), is determined to fix Nina up with a man of wealth and influence. But Nina prefers her romance with pushy legal aid lawyer Vince McBride (John Pankow). Or, at least, she claims to. It's interesting that she won't agree to live with Vince. She does, however, rent out her spare bedroom to gay schoolteacher George Hanson (Paul Rudd) after he is cruelly dumped by his professor lover, Robert Joley (Tim Daly). And therein begin our complications.

Nina is entirely comfortable with George's sexual orientation. She even encourages him to feel free to bring any new boyfriends back to the apartment. But he's nursing a broken heart, and as it happens, he and Nina end up spending a lot of time together. Pretty soon, they come to think of themselves as best friends, and that's where Nina loses her bearings. She likes George so much that she wants him to be something he isn't, and when she learns that George dated and even slept with a girl in high school, she begins to nurse hopes that they can alchemize friendship into romance.

The Object of My Affection gets off to a shaky start. We haven't a clue why George wants to move in with Nina, whom he has just met. Yes, housing is expensive in New York, but even a schoolteacher's salary should cover rent. Once they are sharing space, the script allows the roommates to become far too personal far too quickly. There's no suggestion of even a moment's initial wariness. At this point in the film, we fear we're headed for an inversion of last year's Chasing Amy, where a straight guy falls for a gay girl. And when the picture cuts to some lame comedy about the sex lives of Nina's community center clients and a poke-in-the-ribs joke about the Association of New York Mothers of Latino Lesbians, we prepare ourselves for the worst.

But then, like a runner who stumbles at the starting gun and staggers to the back of the pack while trying to gain her feet, The Object of My Affection rights itself, settles into a briskly comfortable stride and runs a strikingly commendable race. Lesser filmmakers would have settled for fantasy or Sturm and Drang theatrics. Hytner and his team avoid both. The main characters are fully realized, and we come to care for both of them. Moreover, the picture handles its secondary characters with especially agreeable skill. Constance's high-powered literary agent husband, Sidney (Alan Alda), might have been just a name-dropping jerk. But we come to discover in Sidney a core of decency and a non-judgmental affability that no doubt account in significant part for his success. Likewise, other filmmakers might have turned Vince into a villain. But despite his arrogance, Vince is forgiving and fundamentally well-meaning. Perhaps most impressive of all is the work the filmmakers do on Rodney Fraser (Nigel Hawthorne), an outwardly superior and snotty drama critic. Rodney is indeed a cultural snob, but he's also a man of profound vulnerability, considerable wisdom and, in his private life anyway, astonishing compassion. Hollywood seldom bothers with such subtleties, but as a result of them, I find this film an object of a great deal more of my affection than I ever would have suspected.

Dead Time

FILM: Nightwatch
STARRING: Nick Nolte, Ewan McGregor
DIRECTOR: Ole Bornedal

It is said that writer/director Ole Bornedal's Nightwatch was pushed back from last year's original release date so it wouldn't conflict with star Ewan McGregor's other two 1997 pictures, Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book and Danny Boyle's A Life Less Ordinary. McGregor, of course, is supposedly on the fast track to big time international stardom thanks to his work in Boyle's Trainspotting and Shallow Grave and his ballyhooed forthcoming performance as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the George Lucas' prequel to Star Wars. Having seen Nightwatch I can't help but wonder if Bornedal wouldn't have found his picture heading straight to video had it not been for the buzz surrounding McGregor.

Nightwatch can't decide if it wants to be a whodunit or a horror flick, and it ends up not being much of anything. The story involves a young law student named Martin who takes the graveyard security shift at the city morgue so he can make money for school. All he has to do is walk around the building once an hour and turn his clock key at each of several stations. Of course, for reasons that are patently stupid, this requires him to walk past vats of formaldehyde in which body parts are being marinated and mandates that he go through the morgue itself with its full contingent of toe-tagged stiffs. This would give the creeps to the junior high set, I suppose.

When he's not working, Martin either makes whoopee with his girlfriend, Katherine (Patricia Arquette), or hangs out with his psychotic friend James (Josh Brolin). The first activity is easy enough to understand; the second makes no sense whatsoever. James is the kind of guy who picks fights with heavily armed, escaped ax murderers just for the thrill of getting beat up. And to show his loyalty, James also is the kind of guy who gets involved with a prostitute while identifying himself as Martin and later hires the prostitute to commit an act of guerrilla sex on the real Martin, which will eventually serve to jeopardize Martin's relationship with Katherine.

Meanwhile, there's a serial killer on the loose, and Martin gradually becomes the chief suspect. Our suspects include James, of course, homicide detective Cray (Nick Nolte), his partner Bill (John C. Reilly) and the churlish duty doctor (Brad Dourif) who apparently is hooked on speed. It eventually becomes clear that the real killer has concocted an elaborate scheme to frame Martin. But this is totally cockeyed, because Martin is the one character who has an iron-clad alibi in the keyed records of his night watchman's clock. Not that Bornedal remembers that from one sequence to the next. He doesn't manage to keep track of much of anything. Like the fact that the killer evidently begins framing Martin before he knows that Martin exists, or the fact that the killer has relationships with characters in the film other than Martin that prove purely preposterous.

I can say one thing nice, however. In her two or three brief scenes, Alix Koromzay, who plays the prostitute Joyce, is absolutely riveting. She doesn't have the natural beauty that Hollywood normally requires of its female stars, so she will probably be condemned to a life of small character roles. But man, can this young woman act. We'll be seeing her again somewhere soon, and I can't wait.

Presumptions of Promiscuity

FILM: Two Girls and a Guy
STARRING: Robert Downey, Jr., Heather Graham, Natasha Gregson Wagner
DIRECTOR: James Toback

The premise of writer/director James Toback's partially improvised Two Girls and a Guy is that a shameless Lothario named Blake (Robert Downey Jr.) gets caught by the two women he's been dating recently, Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a motor-mouthed brunette, and Carla (Heather Graham), a cool, self-possessed blond. It's bad enough that Blake has been cheating on them, but this guy is such slime that he's been wooing them with the exact same lines.

Two Girls and a Guy offers performances so commanding that we keep watching even after the film has lost its way completely. Downey makes a great sleaze, and you can see his brain churning feverishly like a rat in a maze as he tries to find an escape route. Wagner manages to display a core of vulnerable substance in a character we don't initially like. And Graham continues her rapid rise to stardom. She's soon going to be a serious candidate for roles that have gone to Uma Thurman for the last half-decade.

But this is a picture you don't believe much at the beginning, and not at all after the first 20 minutes. We restrain ourselves from sneering when the women break into Blake's apartment so they can ambush him when he comes home. But we can't help scoffing when they hang around after confronting him to drink a little whiskey, do a little nasty and confess that they aren't actually so pure themselves. Toback obviously wants to believe that everybody is promiscuous. Mark me down as somebody who doesn't.

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