Problematic ’90s Movies Club is a brand new series where hopeless, cynical romantics, Dina L. Relles and Chris Gonzalez, take a look back at their favorite and never-viewed rom-coms (and maybe some non-coms) of the ’90s to ask: What the hell did we miss about the movies we love?
This month, we’re discussing The Object of My Affection (1998), starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd—a film formative in shaping Dina’s penchant for ill-fated love affairs, and one of the many roots of Chris’ bisexuality. For those who haven’t seen it, a quick summary: The friendship between a straight woman, Nina, and her gay roommate, George, is put through the wringer when she falls in love with him and asks him to co-parent her child. Basically.
Dina L. Relles: Right out of the gate, in the first scene we meet Nina Borowski (Aniston), she delivers a potentially problematic line to one of the teens in the after-school group she counsels: “If I have sex with a guy, I want him to be my friend. So let’s start with: do you like him?” Her fatal flaw is apparent from the outset: Is friendship the linchpin for good sex? For a lasting relationship?
Ultimately, the deep and abiding friendship she forms with George Hanson (Rudd) only goes so far; you need lust to sustain a relationship. She has it; he doesn’t, so they are a ticking time bomb.
Chris Gonzalez: I wish we read the novel alongside rewatching the movie, because I’m curious how it handles the set-up—perhaps the most unbelievable element of this movie is how George comes to live with Nina. His jack-off boyfriend Joley pretty much dumps him on Nina’s stoop after they’ve both met her, what, once? Joley finds out Nina has a spare bedroom and says it’s perfect, George needs a place to live, then he breaks up with him like an hour later by confessing that he’s grown intimate with a young, confused male student.
DLR: Did you notice that every character in this movie decides it’s time to change or end the relationship they’re in only when they’ve snagged something “better”? Joley is ready to mix things up with George only once he finds a hot young student to sleep with, Nina braces herself to leave Vince only after she finds George, George is ready to leave Nina once he finds Paul, and George’s player of a brother is endlessly ditching one woman for the next...can any of these characters exist happily, alone? The movie suggests solitude is sorrow: Rodney (Paul’s scorned mentor/lover/benefactor...huh?), arguably the saddest sack of them all, puts it bluntly to Nina following Thanksgiving dinner at Nina and George’s place:
“What happens when all the men at your Thanksgiving dinner find other men? Who’s at your table then? Don’t fix your life so that you’re left alone right when you come to the middle of it.”
CG: You’re totally right, because Joley is so afraid of being alone that he doesn’t even want to end it with George. He wants to keep him on the backburner (which leads to their later Vermont trip), and he gives him that garbage excuse: It’s just that he’s going to be 40 and they’re “both too young to settle for a twin-bedded friendship”?
To switch gears a bit, can we also discuss another unbelievable element of this movie? Nina, who works at a community center, can supposedly afford a two-bedroom apartment in fucking Cobble Hill? This is anachronistic rage, I know, it’s 1998, but someone please show me the math!
DLR: YES, I had the same reaction: a two-bedroom with a room to spare for that matter! And honestly, the portrayal of the partners throughout this movie is highly questionable and unsatisfying—they are all so unlikeable, such stock characters—caricatures. Joley has zero redeeming qualities; Vince (whom we’ll meet later) is brash and judgmental. It’s as if we’re to believe George and Nina have no better options than to gravitate toward each other.
And let’s back up a moment: From the very first meeting between Nina and George (at a dinner party at her stodgy, high society stepsister’s place), she is blatantly flirting. They’re sensuously/seductively eating strawberries together. It’s not the least bit subtle. I mean, I’d do the same thing at a dinner party with Paul Rudd, but...she KNOWS he’s gay. She can’t help herself? The awful setups from her stepsister are driving her to hit on anyone else? “You’re a cute shrink.” Honestly: the come-ons would never survive the turn of the millenium.
CG: That’s the thing that doesn’t sit well with me. I mean, clearly Nina wants a piece of George, we all do, but even garbage Vince, her boyfriend, doesn’t quite believe that George is gay. He questions him in a diner—which is the most hey, we’re in a movie set in New York thing anyone can do—about whether or not he’s ever slept with Nina. And then, to jump ahead, when he finds out Nina is pregnant, he immediately thinks George is the father and comes at him with an “I knew you couldn’t keep your hands off her!” It’s possessive and gross and all around fucked up.
DLR: When George’s curly-haired colleague–
CG: Lol, she turns out to be vile!
DLR: –first mentions George’s “boyfriend” (in the context of his having missed George’s students’ show), it feels like it’s supposed to be a mic-drop moment—the sheer fact of a gay lead character is notable in the late 90s. There are so many overt references to his being gay, like each character is rolling the idea around on their tongue throughout the movie. No one in this movie can just let George be George. Nina, for one, is always (not so subtly) hoping he’ll turn straight for her sake.
CG: Oh yeah, like when she finds out that George lost his virginity to a girl on prom night, she holds on to this nugget of information like Rose hoarding the blue diamond in Titanic. It becomes her guiding light throughout the movie, a shimmer of hope that he’ll turn straight and want to fuck her. What she’s hoping for is he’ll be bisexual, but no one in this movie knows the word!
DLR: Oh god, bisexuality is so far beyond what we’re dealing with here. Don’t rush them ahead a decade. I mean, we all start out hetero, right? It was all he KNEW, all he was shown and taught. What else is there? Of COURSE he fucked Lucy Jane Parnell. Thank goodness for going off to college and the guys he met there.
CG: Remember, he found himself “more interested in the guys on football team than the cheerleading squad,” but he actually had a crush on a guy on the rowing team -- who, spoiler, shows up in the back half of the movie and is revealed to be gay, too.
DLR: OMG THAT MOMENT!
CG: What’s so funny is the movie bends over backwards to pretend it’s down with the gays! There’s a whole scene at the community center where Nina and Vince talk to two older voters. After Vince tells them about Nina’s gay roommate “who’s never moving out,” the old guy says, “Everyone’s gay now,” which is very 90s, and the older woman just happens to be “President of the New York Mothers of Latino Lesbians.” It’s a scene that’s written purely for straight audiences, like, let’s get everyone up to speed, only so they can convince them to root for the straight woman and gay guy to fall in love!
DLR: It’s like we, en masse, were intellectually beginning to embrace homosexuality in the 90s, but our intuition hadn’t quite caught on. Yes, what troubles me always, still, about this movie, what kicked off these conversations between us in the first place, is how we are rooting for a character to subvert his own stated sexuality for the sake of the film’s central relationship. Hollywood, generally, RELISHES selling us on forbidden love plots: Dirty Dancing, Brokeback Mountain, Romeo & Juliet, fucking Little Mermaid. I grew up on this shit, feasted on it, then had my own forbidden relationship freshman year of college that haunts me to this day, and is the subject of my WiP...coincidence? Is it just marketability? Manipulation? Or is there something to this whole wanting-what-you-can’t-have that we, qua humans, need, thrive on? Even Paul—George’s love interest—is inaccessible in a way, tied as he is to Rodney. The ungettable get. Will we ever want anything more? And if not, what does that say about us?
CG: We’re always pining. Always. And that’s what makes this movie so damn easy to fall into. Even when I was throwing my hands up in the air, like, get a GRIP, NINA! I still felt for her. And when she gives George the ultimatum in the end, that either he sticks it out and stays a family with Nina and helps raise her kid OR he can choose Paul, and he says, “I want Paul”—just rip open my heart!
DLR: Right? Even though that’s him living his truth, still, you feel like something’s lost.
CG: And thinking about it, the movie doesn’t make a case for any of the heterosexual relationships. Like, Nina’s stepsister, Constance, played by the always-perfect Allison Janney–
DLR: She’s an acting goddess.
CG: –clearly fucking hates her second husband. I mean, she also hates her own daughter, so there’s that.
DLR: And the daughter, in turn, hates them. It’s all so classically miserable.
CG: And George’s brother, played by the miscast Steve Zahn, is dating someone new from the hospital (he’s a doctor) every scene he’s in, until he gets engaged and makes a horrible joke about maybe not going through with the wedding. Right in front of his fiancée!
DLR: Oh! To that point—this exchange is RICH:
Constance: “[George] is an even crazier choice than Vincent; you’re not even fucking him!”
Nina: “When was the last time you and Sidney had sex? Doesn’t it all turn into friendship anyway?”
The not-so-subtle commentary on doomed hetero relationships is a steady undercurrent. Throughout, lust is pitted against love, societal expectation against subversive sexuality. How promising.
CG: Nina’s devotion to friendship is admirable if you squint, but it’s kind of toxic. She doesn’t want to sleep with a guy unless they’re friends first, which is one thing, but then it seems like she’s also willing to keep a baby we’re not sure she actually wants, if it means holding onto a friendship?
DLR: What she wants is no friendship. She wants a relationship with George. Not once can I recall her saying she wants a baby or to be a mother—no. She wants to raise this baby with George. She wants George, and the baby is the means to that end, the tool to keep him tied to her. There are thin allusions to her considering alternatives for like a hot second on an idyllic park bench overlooking the water (sitting romantically intertwined with George), but the next time we see her (strutting with George on the boardwalk before going on some ill-advised amusement park rides no ob-gyn would approve), her mind is made up: she’s having the baby, despite despising its father. She wants to raise it with George.
CG: You’re totally right! No friendship. Full romantic love is what she seeks. Let us also pause to remember that Nina and George know each other for like three weeks and two dance montages when she decides she’s: 1. In love with him and 2. He’d make a great father.
DLR: Such is the power of Paul Rudd.
CG: Also thank you, movie, for telling us more about George’s desire to be a father than Nina’s desire to, what, hold a friend hostage and not have to pay the whole apartment’s rent? It comes off as pretty manipulative, and I don’t buy it! Granted, for George, there is a very real core to his longing—we’re looking at a time when he’s not sure if he’ll ever find long-term love, let alone become a parent. I wish there was more depth given to Nina here.
DLR: The wistfulness of the gay man who believed he’d never be a Real Dad™ is served up strong. Whereas Nina makes the decision to raise this baby with as much gravitas as keeping a pair of shoes from Zappos. And once again, no sincere consideration of her going it alone—with all the challenges and complexities and triumphs that would entail—it’s not really entertained at all? If it’s not Vince, it should be someone helping Nina raise this baby. The 90s were a paragon of ritualistically venerating coupling.
CG: So let’s just cut ahead to the end. Everything works out, it seems. After Nina gives birth and gives George one afternoon to move out (does he not have squatter’s rights?)—
DLR: (Whether or not he does, I think they both know he has to go. Nina was the one clinging to him, but he's looking for permission. He'd take Paul over that sweet, sweet Brooklyn walkup any day.)
CG: –we flash forward to when Nina’s daughter, Molly, is in first grade. We’re treated to an uplifting children’s chorus performance of Des'ree’s “You Gotta Be.” (Iconic, honestly!) The camera pans through the audience and we understand: Nina is with Louis, a cop, and the only black person introduced in this movie; George and Paul are together, and Paul is trying to make it as an actor; Vince is still in the picture and, after the performance, tells Nina, “You know I’m the only guy in your life who ever made any sense, right?”
DLR: The racist undertones of this line make me shudder every time.
CG: Especially when it’s followed up by Constance telling Nina that she’s made her point by dating Louis and now it’s time for her to find someone serious to date. We’re not supposed to align with Constance, of course, but the whole thing is still too much of a weird one-two racist joke punch.
Then, the final shot of the film brings us back to George and Nina, only this time Molly is there; the three of them walk together down a Brooklyn sidewalk and the credits roll. What are we left with?
DLR: To me, this ending feels like a cop out, squandered potential to subvert the status quo—no, George and Nina shouldn’t have, couldn’t have, ended up together, but! Maybe we see her making it work as a single mother, with George still playing a central role in raising Molly and serving as a key support system for her. Maybe they even live together, co-parent Molly, fuck on lonely nights, but have an open relationship? (Look at me, still holding out hope for George’s bisexuality.) Did everyone need to live so (conventionally) happily ever after? If this were a short story, we would all groan at the tidy ending. Ultimately, as Nina tells George, all these characters believe “you have to pick one person and make it work.” How 90s.
CG: I think I’ve learned that even in fiction everyone would die for Paul Rudd, and if your 90s movie doesn’t squeeze in at least one scene where a character sings, it isn’t worth the reel of film. And, you know, given the movie’s weirdness around homosexuality and the murky character development, I’m OK with holding on to only these elements.
Dina L. Relles’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Monkeybicycle, matchbook, Hobart, Passages North, DIAGRAM, River Teeth, and Wigleaf, among others. She is the Nonfiction Editor at Pidgeonholes and Assistant Prose Poetry Editor at Pithead Chapel. More at dinarelles.com or @DinaLRelles.
Chris Gonzalez serves as a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a contributing editor at Split Lip. His stories appear or are forthcoming in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best Small Fictions 2019, Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, Lunch Ticket, Wasafiri, Third Point Press, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Cleveland-raised, he now lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY and spends most of his free time on Twitter: @livesinpages