With The Object of My Affection and the upcoming The Opposite of Sex, gay and straight screen characters seem to be co-existing in ways that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. These films posit a world where people of different sexual orientations interact without making a big deal of it--which may be a big step for movies, but is increasingly reflective of life in '90s America, at least in some of its more enlightened neighborhoods.

In The Object of My Affection, the dramatic crisis doesn't arise from the fact that first-grade teacher George Hanson is gay, but from the unexpected chemistry that develops between him and Brooklyn social worker Nina Borowski. George and Nina's first meeting at a Manhattan dinner party hosted by her stepsister Constance is actually a rather traumatic one for George, as Nina unintentionally conveys the news that his lover, Columbia University professor Dr. Robert Joley, is breaking up with him. Almost overnight, George is in need of an apartment, and he accepts Nina's offer to move into a spare room in her place in Cobble Hill. At first, Nina's boyfriend Vince, a brash civil-liberties lawyer, is unruffled by the presence of her new male roommate, but he soon has reason to worry as Nina and George become increasingly fond of each other's platonic company. When Nina discovers she's pregnant, it suddenly becomes clear she doesn't have all that much in common with Vince, and she makes the radical declaration that she wants to raise the baby with George as the father figure.

The situation is a strange one, but its very strangeness is what makes The Object of My Affection both frustrating and intriguing. George and Nina's friendship is so strong, it gives rise to the question: Can two people live as a couple without the spectre of sex ruining everything? Nina, for her part, harbors the hope that the relationship can turn physical as well; after all, George says he had a girlfriend in high school, and they come awfully close to making love one night. But, as her acerbic stepsister observes, 'A gay nursery-school teacher is a one-way ticket to nowhere'--blunt as that observation may be, it turns out Constance is right. George meets a hunky young actor (ironically, at an academic conference where Dr. Robert hopes to make up with his ex-lover) and their attraction is instantaneous. Thanks to George's torrid affair, Nina is suddenly alone more often than she expected--and getting bigger all the time.

Nina's plan is doomed to failure, and that's been enough reason for some critics to dismiss The Object of My Affection. But people do all kinds of foolish things for love, and there's definitely some kind of mutual bond at the core of the film which gives it both a poignancy and fascination. It also helps that the two leads are so genuinely endearing. Jennifer Aniston of 'Friends,' who was by far the best thing about last year's routine Picture Perfect, again shows she has the comic skill to carry a feature; deliberately looking less well-coiffed than she does on TV, she succeeds in finding the sweetness and vulnerability in her pipe-dream-driven character. Paul Rudd, who played Alicia Silverstone's stepbrother in Clueless, pours on the charm as George, giving an utterly natural performance that never overstates his sexuality. You can really believe these two attractive people enjoy being with each other.

The other roles are a mixed bag, more the fault of Wendy Wasserstein's adaptation of Stephen McCauley's novel than of the actors. John Pankow ('Mad About You') tries his best to humanize Vince, but the character is still a rather one-dimensional boor. Constance and her name-dropping literary-agent husband are also on the cartoonish side, but Allison Janney nails every one of her laugh lines and Alan Alda also supplies some gusto. The movie's secret weapon is Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George) as a powerful drama critic who loses his much younger lover to George; the veteran actor brings wit and panache to his every scene, and the moment when he realizes he's about to be abandoned at an intimate dinner party is heartbreaking.

The movie is directed in glossy high style on New York locations by Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible, The Madness of King George). Ultimately, the movie also tends to gloss over some of the darker implications of Nina's plight, supplying her with an alternate Prince Charming and resolving the movie's twisty relationships with a (no slight intended) fairy-tale-like epilogue. Still, The Object of My Affection sends an audience home happy, all while picturing a community where tolerance is the standard.

--Kevin Lally