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Somewhere near the halfway mark of The Broken-Hearts Club, the latest gay romantic comedy (they really seem to be piling up these days) comes a not-unexpected scene where a rock-solidly avuncular older man (John Mahoney) tells a tremulously insecure younger one (Ben Weber) the “message” that's at this film's core: “Not everyone is beautiful. Some people are just gay and ordinary. We're the strongest, I think.”
Sure it's obvious. Even a tad trite. And there's no question that it's the sort of crowd-pleasing pat-on-the-back zillions of gays (and not a few straights) long to hear. But that doesn't make it any less effective.
The film that surrounds this isn't exactly groundbreaking. In fact as buddy-bonding scenarios go, it owes a lot more to the straight Diner than to the queerer-than-queer Love! Valor! Compassion! Yet in an odd way, even this is something of an achievement. We've come a long, long way from the time when The Boys in the Band was regarded not just as a play about a group of gay upper-middle-class New Yorkers but as an explanation of homosexuality itself.
A lot of movies about gay life -- good and bad, ambitious and mediocre -- have come and gone since then. And we've been introduced via the media to real-life gays and lesbians as different as Mary Cheney (the Republican VP nominee's beer-pushing daughter) and Richard Hatch (the Machiavellian nudist of Survivor). Consequently audiences aren't likely to expect anything definitive on the subject from a film as comfortably low-key as The Broken Hearts Club. In fact what writer-director Greg Berlanti has put on view here won't even be taken as the last word on gay life in turn-of-the-new-century West Hollywood, any more than Trick was the definitive take on gay New York.
Sure, there's a buff beauty on hand (Dean Cain) as well as a club kid/gym bunny in thrall to designer drugs (Zach Braff). But they're scarcely the central point of focus. Berlanti doesn't even really supply a central point of focus, which doesn't mean we're in for the narrative complexity of a movie like Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. The Broken Hearts Club is an entertainment: serious when it wants to be and lightly comic the rest of the time. The narrative may be initially propelled by Dennis (Timothy Olyphant), a slightly wistful guy on the verge of his thirties who seems ready to have an early midlife crisis. But in the end there's nothing particularly critical in his search for love and “the meaning of it all,” nor is there for any of his other deeply loyal friends, all members of the worst bar-sponsored gay baseball team in the city. We should all be so lucky to lose as gracefully as these guys.
Because the film's protagonists are all post-Gen X-ers, there's barely a mention of AIDS here. For the same reason, familial strife and coming-out woes don't hog the spotlight. The main adjustment problem facing the story's newbie (nicely played by Andrew Keegan) is that he's fallen for a guy bound to drop him for the next cutie that comes along (former TV Superman Cain). To the delight of every man who has ever lost his heart to a manipulative looker, Berlanti supplies a very subtle comeuppance for this nonhero, putting him back on the same footing with the story's other lovable “losers.” Quotation marks are very much required, too, for while Berlanti's characters certainly have plenty to complain about, he cares for them too much to allow them to suffer for very long, especially as so many of their wounds are self-inflicted. In fact one of the most amusing subplots involves a member of the group (Matt McGrath) so obsessed with not being hurt by romance that he ends up hurting himself in advance by imagining that a love affair that's barely begun is already over.
Still, there's serious hurt on view here too, particularly in the older man/younger man exchange. What's especially witty about this is that the guy who just can't seem to get a date is failing to score in Boystown precisely because he's so straight-acting, straight-appearing -- among gay men, the long-accepted, if nonetheless-loathed, standard for desirability. Patrick Weber's face holds a world of hurt. And John Mahoney's recognition of it is more than a welcome sight in a culture that so rigidly separates the generations, regardless of sexual orientation.
Yet even subtler than that relationship is the very special sense of camaraderie that Berlanti is intent on conveying. Modest though it may be, The Broken Hearts Club is a slap in the face for those who insist on seeing gayness as “acts” and those who are honest about their sexuality as fashioning a lifestyle rather than a life. In short audiences may be buying a ticket to see Dean Cain kiss another guy, but there's a lot more to The Broken Hearts Club than that lovely sight.
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