Gay and Average
In the press information for The Broken Hearts Club, writer/director Greg Berlanti states that he wanted to “write a film about gay men that was more the way I knew the gay world to be, which is very mainstream and regular.” Berlanti, who is co-executive producer of Dawson’s Creek, has indeed surpassed his goal. The gay world he depicts in this comedy-drama about a group of gay men living in trendy West Hollywood, California is “mainstream” and “regular” to the point of being bland and uninvolving. In comparison to this club’s bunch of self-involved twentysomethings, Dawson and his pals on the Creek are living on the edge.
Friends. You can’t live with them. You can’t live without them. Dennis (Timothy Olyphant) a struggling photographer who is the narrative’s focal point makes this realization on his twenty-eighth birthday. “I can’t decided if my friends are the best or worst thing that every happened to me,” he confides to his hairdresser. For each person in Dennis’ intimate circle of friends, Berlanti has assigned a specific character flaw and a situation, all of which gives Dennis the opportunity to “grow.”
Partly as a result of his birthday night revelation, Dennis decides that he no longer wants to have meaningless sex with guys whose names he can’t even remember (he refers to his latest trick as “J. Crew Guy” because he looks like he just stepped out of the catalogue). Patrick (Ben Weber), who suffers from a bad case of low self-esteem about his looks (he rates himself a six out of ten), is asked by his lesbian sister Anne (Mary McCormack) to father a child by artificial insemination with her tempermental girlfriend Leslie (Nia Long). The handsome heartbreaker Cole (Dean Cain), who uses his audition monologue to break up with his boyfriends, has the tables turned on him by a closeted movie star. Psychology student Howie (Matt McGrath) is stuck in an on-again, off-again relationship with his pot-smoking boyfriend (Justin Theroux). Benji (Zack Braff), who has a thing for gym boys (a.k.a. “gym bunnies”), strays from the group and falls in with the wrong crowd. Taylor (Billy Porter), the resident drama queen, has just been dumped by his partner in a long-term relationship. Kevin (Andrew Keegan), the group’s “newbie” (a gay man who has only recently come out), is just trying to take it all in. Rounding out the group is Jack (John Mahoney), who dispenses fatherly advice in between running his restaurant, Jack of Broken Hearts (where he also performs his drag act), and coaching the restaurant’s softball team, on which all of the guys play.
Unfortunately, Berlanti is not a skillful enough filmmaker to generate much interest in these characters, as individuals or as a group, particularly in the film’s more dramatic moments. It’s not enough to write a film about your friends there needs to be a story, something to compel us to care if Howie will get back with his boyfriend, Patrick will father his sister’s baby, Dennis will find himself, etc. But whenever a character comes close to displaying some real emotion, the film quickly moves on to the next scene. This is particularly obvious in a potentially poignant moment in which Jack explains to the insecure Patrick that “everybody can’t be beautiful. Some people are just gay and average… We’re the strongest, I think.” Before Patrick even has a chance to respond, Berlanti awkwardly cuts to Jack performing his drag number inside the restaurant. Patrick’s struggle to fit in as a gay man in the beautiful world of West Hollywood is the most honest and original of the subplots. It is also the least developed. On the whole, Berlanti spends more time reveling in than critiquing the superficiality of WeHo and its inhabitants.
To create some semblance of a narrative, Berlanti adds a few “big movie moments,” like the sudden death of a character and the near-death of another. The latter incident, involving Benji’s drug use, seems to come out of nowhere. In a matter of a few scenes, Benji transforms from a well-adjusted genial jokester into a hardcore, red-eyed, sniffling drug addict, which lands him in the hospital in the film’s anti-climactic third act climax.
Fortunately, there are some nice comic bits to live things up, such as a softball game between a group of firefighters and Jack’s Broken Hearts, whose lack of athletic skill is only surpassed by their lack of enthusiasm. Berlanti’s dialogue is at times quite witty, though some group conversations on topics such as, “What tv character was your first crush?” seem forced and sound too much like movie dialogue. Furthermore, the handsome cast Berlanti has assembled lacks the comic skill to pull off the film’s lighter moments, though Caine, Weber, McGrath, and Theroux manage to make the most of their limited roles. They are all competent actors, but on the whole, the casting, like the dialogue, is uninspired. Veteran Mahoney, who appears here to be enjoying his hiatus from Frasier, is the only cast member who doesn’t take himself and the film so seriously. He is certainly the most adept at making the rapid and awkward transitions from comedy to drama required by Berlanti’s screenplay.
Unfortunately, Broken Hearts is indicative of the direction gay-themed movies are headed. Recent gay ensemble films like Relax… It’s Just Sex and I Think I Do are content with focusing on a tight-knit group of gay friends who seem to have no lives outside of their inner circle (Jack is the only one in Broken Hearts who has an outside relationship, though his lover’s character is never formally introduced). As in Broken Hearts, the friends fight, bitch, and whine about their lives, but in the end they discover they really do need each other. Berlanti no doubt had good intentions. Making a mainstream movie about gay life that gay and straight audiences can appreciate is a good idea. As long there’s a story to tell.