If there's one subject movies never seem to understand, it's money. I don't simply mean currency the ability to buy things but the complex web of pleasure, anxiety, and sheer wishfulness that binds most people to their pocketbooks. There's a reason this stuff generally gets short shrift: Movies tend to be love stories, and few subjects are less overtly romantic than cold, hard cash. Over the long haul, though, money and romantic relationships have a lot to do with each other (at least, more than many of us would care to admit). That's the starting point for Michael Lindsay-Hogg's The Object Of Beauty (R), a mild but charmingly off-kilter romantic comedy that gently satirizes love in an era of buy-now-pay-later brinkmanship. The film is about an extravagant, globe-trotting couple, Jake (John Malkovich) and Tina (Andie MacDowell), whose amorous feelings are all gummed up with their comically precarious economic status. As long as they're solvent, they're content: blithe pleasure-seekers living for the moment. As soon as their ''fortune'' begins to unravel, so do their ties to one another.
Jake and Tina are floating bons vivants. They've been involved for two years ever since Tina split with her rich husband but they don't have a home. Instead, they travel from country to country, running up tabs in the swankest hotels and keeping one step ahead of their creditors. Jake, a professional investor, sometimes has cash, but mostly he has the aura of money. His life is one long, leveraged pig-out. The movie picks up these two glamorous deadbeats in London, where Jake has hit a rough patch: His cash is temporarily tied up in a cocoa crop that can't be moved (it seems a striking dock workers' union is dumping it into the ocean). Ensconced in their sleek hotel suite, the two continue to make love, guzzle champagne, and consume fabulous meals, even though they're half aware that the bottom is about to fall out on them.
Fortunately, they have a financial cushion, a small bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, worth perhaps $30,000, that Tina was given as an anniversary present. They discuss the possibility of putting it up for auction, or even pretending to steal it for the insurance money. Then a chambermaid (Rudi Davies), who is deaf and mute, swipes the sculpture from their room. Suddenly, Jake and Tina can no longer trust one another each one suspects the other of filching the statue and the couple's hedonistic playfulness begins to acquire an acrid edge. Tina, it's clear, won't stay with Jake unless he can keep the cash flowing (in a surprisingly moving scene, he sells his Cartier watch). At the same time, she genuinely loves him. It's part of this movie's unsentimental romanticism to observe that in today's world, love may not always be enough to get you through.
The Object of Beauty is about as small as a movie can be, and it moves at a casual tempo that's often a little too lifelike. The actors, though, establish a teasing intimacy. Here, as in Dangerous Liaisons, Malkovich turns his voice a reedy, avid whine, as though he were trying to speak without letting any air escape from his lungs into a delectable comic instrument. He makes Jake's haughty belief in his own persuasive powers bizarrely attractive. And MacDowell gives her most vibrant performance yet. It has taken a while to adjust to the cool naturalism she brings to romantic scenes, a blend of tenderness and self-absorption that's beguilingly sexy. She finds a core of grace in Tina, whose life is a series of carefree addictions (she's hooked on booze, Jake, and the good life). There's always something happening when MacDowell is on-screen. She's a ''presence,'' to be sure, but one who sends out fascinating ripples of emotional discord.
Writer-director Lindsay-Hogg, a veteran of British theater and television (he also helmed Let It Be), makes one crucial mistake: He spends far too much time tracing the fate of the stolen sculpture. These scenes take us away from the real action, which is the love-hate bantering of Jake and Tina spoiled-brat innocents who, at times, suggest the embattled protagonists of Sid and Nancy, only with charge cards instead of heroin. These two are true modern romantics. As long as their credit holds out, they're only too happy to be each other's objects.