Convoluted and contrived, this movie introduces more conflicts than it knows what do with. It’s a romantic comedy that lasts half an hour longer than most (it’s two full hours). But instead of adding a half hour of depth, Hytner adds a half hour of contradiction and contrariness.
The premise is quite interesting: a woman falls in love with a gay man. They make the perfect couple, but their relationship is fated to be merely platonic.
George (Paul Rudd) is dumped by his boyfriend and moves in with friend-of-a-friend Nina (Jennifer Aniston). George and Nina soon become best friends. When Nina learns she is pregnant she realizes she doesn’t love Vince (John Pankow), the child’s father, she loves George. George agrees to help her raise the child, but that turns out not to be enough, as Nina becomes jealous when George finds a new lover.
I admire the movie for what it attempts. First of all, the characters are fairly well realized. It’s usually clear why someone is falling in love or breaking up with someone else, and most often the reasons are selfish. Not that selfishness is good, but at least the characters have clear motivations that are believable.
Second, George’s sexual orientation is a real character trait. It’s not a joke (like in In & Out) and it’s not a red herring (like in Chasing Amy). There is even a homosexual kiss in this movie that is treated with the same dignified casualness as the average heterosexual screen kiss. Without that mature treatment, it would be impossible to take this movie seriously.
I dislike the movie for what it accomplishes. For a movie with believable characters, the plot is amazingly contrived. Nina falls for George and — what do you know — her current boyfriend becomes homophobic and declares that he never wants to see Nina again. Perfect! Now the characters can continue without guilt, which would have messed up the whole tone of the picture. Nina and George find themselves on the verge of sex and the audience wonders how the filmmakers will get themselves out of this mess without compromising the integrity or the friendship of the characters, and — the phone rings. Whoah, good one! What a close call!
The script is too easy. It uses broad strokes and lacks the subtlety that might have made the characters even more interesting. For example, the movie opens with George being dumped, and his reaction is the standard movie formula, dumped = pain + rebound. We later learn that George is a pretty easygoing guy. He probably could have remained friends with his ex had not the plot required that George be on the rebound. And Nina becomes unreasonably jealous when George starts seeing his new boyfriend. Even though she and George are not lovers, she expects him to remain “true.” But then one mustn’t forget the movie formula that dictates woman - man = jealousy.
The script uses “artificial emotion pendulums” (as seen in As Good As It Gets) instead of normal emotional conflict. First Vince is nice, then he’s a prick, then he’s nice. George hates his ex, then he likes him, then he hates him. (Or, in As Good As It Gets, first Helen Hunt can live with Jack Nicholson’s neurosis, then she can’t, then she can.) Instead of writing real conflict, we just have to have a character change his or her mind, then see how the other characters react. AEPs are cheaper, easier, and much less satisfying than good script rewrites.
Finally, the movie is just too weird at times to be clearly understood. At one point, George and Nina find themselves almost having sex. That George would allow this seemed creepy and unnatural — either he was going against his fundamental nature or he was lying about it. Either way, it creates a side of George that we never see anywhere else.
And when George agrees to help raise Nina’s child, the big picture doesn’t so much resemble an analysis of the complexities of modern gay/straight relationships as it does some freakish, puritanical, birth-without-sex familial ideal.
To be fair, two of the movie’s minor characters are outstanding. Nigel Hawthorne plays Rodney, a lonely gay professor who is indirectly wounded by all the younger characters’ emotions. Alan Alda is a breath of fresh air as Nina’s name-dropping, fun-loving brother-in-law. They more than make up for the bad actors in the teen propaganda squad Nina works with (she’s a social worker).
Rating this movie is problematic because there is such a wide range of quality. It is very uneven, with satisfying highs and disappointing lows. On the whole, it averages out to a standard, middle-of-the road movie. Even so, I will give it a “thumbs up;” not necessarily because it merits one, but because I myself was entertained, satisfied, sometimes frustrated, but never bored.