You'll have a gay old time reading Judge Lindsey Hoffman's review of this very gay romantic comedy about gay men. Today is also its street date, so you can frolick on over to your favorite retailer and buy yourself a copy.
The shortest distance between two friends isn't always a straight line.
"It's like one big gay soap opera," sputters one man to his hairdresser, and though he's referring to a party gone bad, he might as well be talking about the film he's in. The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy (hereafter referred to as The Broken Hearts Club) is a frothy slice of life in the gay subculture of West Hollywood. Though the script is clever, it fails both as comedy and as melodrama. Writer and producer Greg Berlanti (executive producer and occasional writer for the TV show Dawson's Creek) has given us 95 minutes of lively banter without the substance to back it up.
Facts of the Case
The Broken Hearts Club skims across the lives of a circle of gay friends, barely rippling the surface of each. Patrick is insecure about his appearance and has a troubled relationship with his lesbian sister. Naïve Benji lusts after the hunks at the gym. Taylor gets dropped by his "LTR" (long-term relationship) and spends weeks in inert misery. Cole, the envy of his peers, never has trouble finding—or dumping—a boyfriend. Howie is obsessed with his ex and bitter about everything. At the core of the story is Dennis, an aspiring photographer who finds himself strangely discontent with his world. These six young men are watched over and mentored by Jack, a Shakespeare quoting, aloha shirt wearing restaurant owner, who twists their arms into forming an abysmally bad softball team.
Rather than dive into the hurts and joys of any one character, the plot segues nimbly through their lives with sitcom pacing. Each has his own crisis to meet and lesson to learn. It's not always clear what holds their circle together, as they seem to make each other miserable more often than not; but when non-romantic disaster strikes, their friendship shows its true strength.
The Broken Hearts Club is billed as "the first mainstream gay movie." While that's not quite accurate (anybody remember The Birdcage?), it's certainly the first mainstream movie without any straight characters. In one self-conscious scene, the friends discuss the sorry state of gay men as depicted in film. "Just once," Howie moans, "I'd like to see a gay character that is not sick, has not been laid in about three months, and is behind on his student loans." He goes on to wonder what a movie about his own circle of friends would be like: "Maybe then we wouldn't have to go around shamefully comparing ourselves to Steel Magnolias."
To be honest, I found it difficult to relate to these men. Yes, I'm sure this is partly because I'm neither gay nor male. But a truly excellent script allows viewers to get inside the lives of people with whom they have nothing in common. This is not that script. Berlanti paints the characters as shallow, egocentric individuals who exist primarily to have a good time. He does so in a witty and affectionate manner, but that's not enough to save the film, which veers drunkenly back and forth across the line between humor and pathos. Its subjects are too caricatured to be sympathetic, and too unhappy to be funny.
The script prevents the characterizations from ever becoming truly dynamic. We are told that struggle and change is occurring, but we don't get to see it. Even Dennis's search for meaning, which is central to the film, is merely introduced, alluded to in a couple of unhappy conversations, and then resolved with a "three months later." Fatherly Jack is loved and respected by the younger men, but he is kept so much in the shadows of the story that we never really get to find out who he is. I'm not sure whether this was an oversight on the part of the writer, or a deliberate comment on how the young men are so self-focused that they just don't bother to learn much about him.
The acting reflects the imbalance between serious drama and humorous exaggeration. Timothy Olyphant (Gone in Sixty Seconds, Scream 2) and Ben Weber (Twister, The Mirror Has Two Faces) play Dennis and Patrick with credibility and restraint, and John Mahoney (Frasier, Say Anything) is undeniably endearing as the group's patriarch. But Matt McGrath (Cruel Doubt) is so whiny that his humor loses its edge after the first fifteen minutes, and singer Billy Porter turns in an embarrassingly campy performance as the group's token black male. You'd think that a movie trying to make a statement about the portrayal of gay men in cinema would give more thought to the way it depicts other minorities.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As little as I liked the story, I will concede that it flows well. The pacing never drags, and scenes intercut in a way that enlivens the dialogue without confusing the viewer. One particularly clever segment implies that four of the friends all deliver the same monologue to the same taciturn hairdresser. A tip of the baseball cap to Todd Busch for a stellar editing job that brings out the best in the script.
One interesting aspect of this film's "mainstream" nature is its inoffensiveness to queasy heterosexual viewers like myself. I sat down to watch this film fearing the worst (i.e., steamy love scenes), but the only part that really made me cringe was when Karen Carpenter croons "Sing, sing a song…" over scenes of the softball team bumbling around the sunny outfield.
I have no real complaints about the disc itself. The picture and sound quality are excellent. One minor drawback is the occasional text blurb as a transition between scenes. It's a clever convention, and would have worked well if I hadn't had to get up and walk over to the screen in order to read the tiny typeface. Extras include trailers for The Broken Hearts Club, All About My Mother, Groove, Futuresport and Go! Writer/director Berlanti and producers Mickey Liddell and Joseph Middleton have recorded a commentary track for the final cut of the film, as well as for the three deleted scenes included on the disc. "Talent Files" offer trivia and career highlights for the director and actors Olyphant, Mahoney and Dean Cain (Beverly Hills, 90210, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman). One minor glitch in the menu system prevents you from returning to the main menu from the aspect ratio selection screen. Other than that, this DVD is a solid production.
"Sometimes I wonder what you boys'd do if you weren't gay. You'd have no identity," wise old Jack tells Patrick. "[You] talk about it so much that sometimes you forget about all the other things that you are." The Broken Hearts Club, like its characters, forgets to be anything but gay.
If you wonder what an all-gay sitcom would look like, or if you think whiny effeminate men are funny, give this disc a trial spin. But if you, like Howie, are looking for "a film…that paints a portrait of a gay man that any of us would aspire to be," don't expect to find it here—or in any other film that prides itself on being "mainstream."
The Broken Hearts Club is hereby acquitted of any crime, as well as any significant contribution to society or culture. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Director and Producers' Commentary
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