Back in the 1980s, Barry Levinson directed the largely devoid-of-plot Diner, which showed us a half-dozen or so friends who get together regularly at a local Baltimore diner and discuss their lives.
Take that basic, essentially plotless structure, update it to the year 2000, change the setting to West Hollywood, and add a half-dozen or so gay friends who meet in a local restaurant and discuss their lives, and we now have The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy.
If writer/director Greg Berlanti intended for The Broken Hearts Club to have a crossover straight audience, he only partially succeeds. The film is "straight-friendly" by not ridiculing the straight world, but all its principal characters are gay, and the comedy is definitely more relatable to gays and gay-friendly crowds.
Berlanti provides some instructional vocabulary that is only tongue-in-cheek on occasion. He shows a cue card (reminiscent of the silent-film era) that explains some gay terminology. For example:
“meanwhile”—a word used by gay men to indicate that a good-looking man is now passing by.
“newbie”—a gay man who has just come out
“gym bunny”—a gay man who works out at the gym and practically lives there
The plot—actually, we don’t need no stinkin’ plot—The Broken Hearts Club remains essentially a character study of gay friends who live in West Hollywood and hang out at the Jack of Broken Hearts restaurant. The restaurant owner/patriarch Jack (John Mahoney of Frasier) has a 20-year business and personal relationship with Purple Man (Robert Arce). Many of the friends work at Jack’s restaurant and play on the second-to-worst softball team you’ve ever seen.
There are so many story lines, it's difficult to keep all the soap-style stories straight (no pun intended).
The primary focus rests with Dennis (Tim Olyphant), a photographer. Dennis is celebrating his 28th birthday, and he wonders if he’ll ever settle down for a committed relationship, or decide exactly where he's going in Life. If “Mr. Right” ever shows up, that man will have to appreciate his photography and Carpenters albums.
Dennis' housemate is Cole (Dean Cain), an actor. He continues to play the field and break the hearts of the men who become infatuated with him. A jilted lover gets one of the more humorous lines in a crowded restaurant, tearfully shouting out "Have a pleasant evening, Bottom Boy!"
Cole lands a supporting role in an action film, starring married actor Kip Rogers, who is rumored to be gay. Of course, the question becomes whether Cole gets anything going with the lead actor. This leads to one of the more interesting sidelines of The Broken Hearts Club.
One of Cole's conquests is newbie Kevin, who is brought to Dennis' birthday party by co-worker Benji (Zach Braff), a blond with a punk-rocker hairdo. He becomes ostracized for hanging out with a bunch of gym bunnies who do drugs. Kevin may be “Mr. Right” for Dennis (he actually likes the Carpenters and loves going to art galleries), but time will tell.
That's about half the characters, but those are the main story lines. Others that get a little less play:
Patrick, an average-looking guy who longs to be attractive. Jack once tries to cheer him up by telling him that average-looking gay guys are “the strong ones,” but he is generally unhappy. His lesbian sister’s partner wants to have a child, and they ask him for a sperm donation so the child will have the right kind of genes.
That leaves us with an on-and-off couple. Howie is a simple sort who smokes pot to get relaxed enough to face a party crowd. He usually goes home with the nerd of the group, Marshall (Justin Theroux), who has a difficult time expressing emotions and wants to appear as a straight man. A particularly humorous sequence shows the two men in the grocery store, where Howie quizzes elderly strangers on whether they think Marshall is gay or straight. “Could he fold his arms?”
One more relatively minor character, an unathletic African-American man named Taylor (Billy Porter) is dumped from his long-term relationship. He attempts to get over the heartbreak by seeking Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, and Judy Garland records and moves into Dennis and Cole's guest room.
A few things happen, but The Broken Hearts Club parallels the soap stories we've previously seen in Diner, essentially communicating the idea that all people need true friendships based on acceptance and love. This is difficult enough in the “regular” world of Diner, but perhaps even more difficult to find in the gay community, where so many people are fighting personal issues as well as non-acceptance by mainstream society.
The strength of The Broken Hearts Club lies in the characterizations and the acting. The characters seem real enough; I can only assume Berlanti is basing them on real people that he knows, as Levinson did in Diner.
There's a lot of relationship-angst expressed (none of the main characters has really succeeded at maintaining a long term relationship), but maybe that's another movie. They all wonder how Jack and Purple Man have done it over the years, but there are no scenes that explore that aspect. Like Diner, it's about strictly about friendships.
At one point in The Broken Hearts Club, the characters muse about the idea of creating a movie about their lives. They decide it would be a gay version of Steel Magnolias. That's not a bad comparison either, and it's certainly progress to see a comedy like this being made, even if it's not the greatest film.
At least it's not another lament of numerous characters dying off from AIDS, or another gay teen coming-out-in-angst story. The Broken Hearts Club will especially appeal to gay audiences and open-minded audiences sympathetic to gays. Like Jack indicates, The Broken Hearts Club may actually show its strength by being average.