The man that got away
Giving a simple synopsis of Greg Berlanti’s The Broken Hearts Club would make it sound like any one of a half-dozen romantic comedies with gay characters that have been blooming on the independent film circuit in the last few years—Jeffrey, Trick and Relax … It’s Just Sex. But from the very first scene, Berlanti strikes a note of easygoing, articulate charm that sets his film apart.
It’s a good thing he does, because The Broken Hearts Club borrows its central situation from Tommy O’Haver’s Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. In both films, the central character is a Los Angeles photographer who has grown tired of meaningless sex and becomes attracted to a young man who isn’t yet completely out of the closet. In The Broken Hearts Club, the photographer is Dennis (Timothy Olyphant), and the object of his hesitant affections is Kevin (Andrew Keegan).
Berlanti’s script, however, has room for more than the romantic ups and downs of just these two. The club from which the film takes is title is a large circle of friends—all gay, and all reasonably secure in their sexuality, if not in their relationships.
There are Howie and Marshall (Matt McGrath, Justin Theroux), who have drifted from lovers to platonic roommates on the clashing currents of Howie’s promiscuity and Marshall’s pot-smoking; Taylor (Billy Porter), who begins every sentence with “As a person in a long-term relationship …"—until his boyfriend calls him from Hawaii to dump him; Cole (Dean Cain), the aspiring actor whose relationships are only skin-deep and who gets rid of his one-night stands with monologues he reads from notes scribbled on his hand; and Patrick (Ben Weber), the homely one, whose only offer lately has been from his lesbian sister and her partner (Mary McCormack, Nia Long)—they want to have a baby and want him to be the sperm donor. The unofficial president of the club is Jack (John Mahoney), the owner of the restaurant where they all work—an affectionate father-hen given to ebulliently spouting Shakespeare and offering seasoned advice in affairs of the heart.
Berlanti avoids most of the clichés of the independent gay film—there are no lip-synching drag queens in this one (although Mahoney does squeeze into a red sequined gown and a platinum blond wig in one scene), and no misunderstood transsexuals smiling bravely through their tears. Berlanti focuses on more conventional characters, as if to emphasize the gay lifestyle’s similarity to the straight world, rather than its differences.
Berlanti has a playful ear for dialogue and telling details, too. When Kevin admits to liking the music of the Carpenters, Dennis nods, “That’s your first OGT—obviously gay trait.” At another point, when Taylor is suffering through his broken heart, he sighs impatiently over Dennis’ music collection: no Judy, no Bette, no Barbra. How can a gay man get any suffering done without the proper soundtrack?
Unfortunately, Berlanti doesn’t quite miss all the clichés. I could have done without the funeral in the film’s third act; it has the feel of a mechanical crisis cooked up to inject an extra measure of conflict into the action. It’s in this section of the film that we begin to hear the grinding of the gears in Berlanti’s script, and it’s jarring—especially since the story up to this point has been unfolding organically out of the characters. (It does, however, give one member of the cast—it wouldn’t be fair to say who—a chance to play the kind of understated death scene actors just love.)
Despite that brief flourish of discreet pathos, The Broken Hearts Club ends on a note of optimism and reconciliation. Berlanti’s direction is smooth and unobtrusive, and he draws good-natured, unforced performances from his ensemble cast. In the tradition of the well-made play, Berlanti’s theme is clearly stated at the outset, then repeated at the end: "I can’t remember when I first realized I was gay, only the first time I knew it was OK. It was when I met these guys, my friends."