Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Broken Hearts Club (2000)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - The shortest distance between friends isn't always a straight line.

In an endearing and funny coming-of-age story, Dennis (Timothy Olyphant - GO, Scream 2) can't quite decide if his friends are a blessing or a curse. Once you meet them, you'll know why.

Benji (Zach Braff) is a punkish youth whose obsession with gym bods gets him into trouble. Howie (Matt McGrath - Boys Don't Cry) is an annoyingly overanalyzing psychology grad student who can't let go of his ex-boyfriend. Cole (Dean Cain - TV's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) is a "pretty boy" actor who goes through guys like clean underwear. Patrick (Ben Weber) is a painfully ordinary "Average Joe" whose insecurity has turned him bitter. Taylor (Billy Porter) is the resident drama queen who prides himself on his LTR (long term relationship) only to find himself sleeping single in a double bed. Jack (John Mahoney - TV's Frasier, Tin Men) is the group's wizened patriarch whose restaurant is a haven for them all. And then there's Kevin, (Andrew Keegan - 10 Things I Hate About You, TV's Party Of Five) the naïve "newbie" and most recent addition to the club.

To an outsider, it may seem like the only thing these friends have in common is that they play on the same team, but when times get tough, these friends are more like family.

Director: Greg Berlanti
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Zach Braff, Dean Cain, Andrew Keegan, Nia Long, John Mahoney, Mary McCormack, Matt Grath
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Digital Stereo; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; rated R; 95 min.; $29.95; street date 3/6/01.
Supplements: Director's and Producer's Commentary; Deleted Scenes with Director and Producer's Commentary; DVD-ROM Weblink to Official The Broken Hearts Club Website; Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Greg Berlanti | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/C+

In a blurb listed on the back cover of the DVD release for The Broken Hearts Club a reviewer calls the film “the first mainstream gay movie”. First of all, that’s an oxymoron. For something to be “mainstream”, it has to fit in with a very large portion of society, and the experiences of some late-twenties gay men in West Hollywood don’t mean much to the folks in Ohio.

However, I’ll grant the critic the concept that TBHC offers a rare look at the gay experience in that it seems less obviously stuck within the genre’s stereotypes. Generally when we find gay-oriented films they have to feature either AIDS ala Philadelphia or show blatant homophobia like in Boys Don’t Cry.

TBHC provides a more modest focus and simply concentrates on the various relationship travails experienced by our crew of protagonists. Dennis (Timothy Olyphant) seems unable to “grow up” and he progresses through a series of brief, meaningless trysts while he pines for something more substantial. Cole (Dean Cain) presents the idealized member of the group, a cocky, exceedingly handsome actor who appears to coast through life with few concerns. Benji (Zach Braff) is one of the younger guys, and his desire for a really buff guy leads him into difficulties. Howie (Matt McGrath) constantly breaks up and reunites with his boyfriend Marshall (Justin Theroux). Taylor (Billy Porter) initially boasts of his apparently-unprecedented (for this group) long-term relationship but soon sees life from the other side of the tracks when his sluttish boyfriend dumps him. Patrick (Ben Weber) is the least attractive guy in the bunch, and he’s woefully insecure about this. His life is also complicated since his lesbian sister Anne (Mary McCormack) wants him to provide the sperm so she can have a baby with “life partner” Leslie (Nia Long). Kevin (Andrew Keegan) is the newest member of the clan, a very young guy who’s just starting to explore his gay side.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned patriarch Jack (John Mahoney), the owner of the group’s preferred nightspot and longtime companion of “the Purple Guy” (Robert Arce), his mysterious mate. Check out the movie’s running time of 95 minutes and take another look back at the preceding paragraph. You’ll quickly find the major problem with TBHC: it tries far too hard to be everything to everyone. The movie wants to portray all possible non-offensive sides of the gay experience and doesn’t know how to focus its energy. Granted, Dennis stands as the focal point of the film, but all of the others receive enough emphasis to make this a story with far too many main characters. Ensembles are fine, but this one attempts to toss in too many and doesn’t know when to stop itself.

Honestly, the best thing going for TBHC stems from its innocuous nature, as I will agree that it’s nice to see a gay-oriented movie without too many social ills depicted. However, don’t let that fool you into thinking it’ll avoid some serious melodrama. From Patrick’s decision about his sister’s baby to Kevin’s difficult “coming out” period to some drug use to the death of a character, TBHC often betrays the notion that it’s about normal life. Yes, all of those events affect people on a daily basis, but they seem gratuitous here and simply make the result less believable and more overwrought.

One aspect I disliked about TBHC is that it strongly protests the stereotypical portrayal of gays and yet it embraces them. We have a protagonist who adores the Carpenters - music no self-respecting straight male would ever enjoy - and other pop culture gay icons like Judy Garland and Joan Crawford are also shown in a positive manner. The characters all play on a softball team but none of them other than studly Cole display any understanding of or interest in sports. The gratuitous “character in drag” scene offers the frightening image of John Mahoney in a dress. As a whole, in their styles of dress, speech, and interests, the characters easily fit within the boundaries of the stereotypical gay male.

All this in a movie people seem to feel isn’t “about” being gay. I disagree with that notion; overall, TBHC is about nothing other than being gay. The film doesn’t depict events that occur to characters who happen to be homosexual; it shows characters who are homosexual and the events that concern them. That may sound like nit-picking, but it’s a crucial difference; TBHC has no reason to exist other than as a view of gay life, since the storyline has little else going for it.

And that’s the main flaw of TBHC. A short movie with a large ensemble cast needs some unifying plot to keep it together; this many participants could sustain a more character-oriented piece if it offered a longer running time, but at only 95 minutes, there’s simply no time to establish any depth or substance. As such, we’re stuck with the thinnest of exposition and weakly-drawn characters. The film has to go for cheap stereotypes because it has no time for anything else.

The acting seems decent but unspectacular, mainly because most of the performers play minor variations on the same character. Each role features the different aspects I mentioned in the synopsis, but otherwise they easily blend into the same person; there’s exceedingly little to differentiate between them. The only exceptions are the most painful to see: Taylor and Leslie are the movie’s only black characters, and they’re easily the most stereotypical. Taylor seems about as swishy as they come, and Leslie presents a blunt, mannish lesbian. Such characters would be unfortunate no matter what, but the racial aspects make them even less appealing.

Too much of TBHC falls into the cutesy territory that often mars lighter independent fare. As with The Tao of Steve, these sorts of films try hard to do something to make them stand out from studio fare, and those attempts usually come across as forced and silly. In this case, we occasionally find precious definitions of various words such as “meanwhile”, which is the phrase of choice used by our protagonists when a hot guy passes them. That concept got old about 15 seconds after it emerged, and further efforts along the same lines didn’t function any more effectively.

In addition to the lame tagline featured in the film’s publicity - “The shortest distance between friends isn’t always a straight line”, which makes almost no sense other than as a pun - TBHC also provides one of the most annoyingly self-referential scenes I’ve ever witnessed. At one point, Howie whines about the manner in which Hollywood depicts gays and bemoans the fact they never make films about normal guys like them. All this in a movie about these guys. Ugh!

I realize that this review probably seems overwhelmingly negative, but I don’t want to leave the impression that The Broken Hearts Club is a terrible movie. It’s not. As a whole, it seemed breezy and occasionally engaging, but it’s lack of heft and substance made it less than compelling much of the time. In addition to those elements, it suffers from “preaching to the choir” syndrome; as such, it feels like a back-patting and self-congratulatory view of the gay experience. It tells us that there’s no one way to look at that culture and then tries to convince us that only it gets things “right”. Ultimately, I found the movie to be a twee and unsatisfying program.

The DVD:

The Broken Hearts Club appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was rated for this review. As a whole, the picture looked fairly good, but a few concerns kept it from offering a substantially better than average image.

Sharpness was one of those issues. For the most part, the picture seemed acceptably detailed and accurate. However, softness could be a definite problem at times, especially during the early parts of the film. For reasons unknown, the image appeared to “tighten up” a bit as the movie continued, and I saw fewer signs of haziness during the second half. Nonetheless, the problem still existed at times, and it definitely marred parts of the film. The softness didn’t appear extreme, but it was a nagging concern.

Moiré effects and jagged edges displayed no problems, and print flaws seemed fairly minor. I detected a few speckles, and some light grain cropped up throughout the film. The latter was probably the most annoying defect, but it still stayed modest at all times.

Colors tended toward the pink side of the spectrum. This seemed apparent in some flesh tones, and much of the overall look of the movie showed this tint. It wasn’t an overwhelming impression, and most colors were bright and vivid, but the slightly-unnatural bent to the hues made the image appear vaguely “off” at times. Black levels looked nicely deep and dark, but shadow detail could appear muddy at times. Many low-light scenes came across as too thick and opaque, and I had some trouble discerning the action at those times. Ultimately, much of The Broken Hearts Club actually looked quite good, but this variety of problems relegated it to “B-“ status.

Although not terrific either, the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack offered a more consistent presentation. Not surprisingly, this character-oriented piece provided a fairly limited soundfield. Throughout the film, I heard modest action in the side channels, as the various settings portrayed quietly lively activity. The rear speakers added a layer of reinforcement to this, and they came to life a bit more during club scenes and other loud environments, but for the most part, they stuck with gentle ambiance. The track seemed quiet but was fairly appropriate for the most part.

Audio quality generally seemed good. Although some dialogue displayed mild edginess, most of the speech appeared distinct and natural, with no concerns related to intelligibility. Some lines seemed poorly looped, however, which could be a distraction. Effects were a very modest component to this mix, but they sounded clean and acceptably realistic. Music played a somewhat stronger role but still took a backseat to dialogue. The music displayed decent dynamics and clarity, though I felt the low end could have been deeper; even during the club scenes, my subwoofer barely registered, and I heard only moderate bass throughout the film. Overall, however, this quiet track fit the movie fairly well.

The Broken Hearts Club offers a few supplements, starting with a running audio commentary from director Greg Berlanti and producer Mickey Liddell. The two were recorded together and provide a screen-specific discussion of the film. Although the track includes some interesting notes about the production, for the most part I found this commentary to be moderately dull. Too much of it suffers from Farrelly disease, whereby the speakers - ala the creators of Kingpin - do little more than relate the identities of the performers. Berlanti and Liddell also spend too much time praising everyone involved with the film. That may be good for their careers in the long run, and it may make others happy, but it doesn’t create an interesting commentary. Ultimately, if you really liked TBHC you may find enough of use in this track to sustain you, but others will probably think it’s less compelling.

Next up is a series of “Deleted Scenes”. These snippets feature a mix of extended segments plus completely removed sequences, each of which runs between 23 seconds and three minutes, 20 seconds; all in all, we get a total of 12 minutes and 15 seconds of material. Surprisingly, many of these pieces are actually pretty good within the scope of the project. Only one probably should have stayed in the movie - we find out more about Taylor’s break-up - but all of them will be interesting for those who liked the film.

The DVD also provides optional commentary from Berlanti and Liddell. They discuss the shots and also explain why each of them was removed from the film. The information is concise and helpful.

A few DVD “stand-bys” round out the package. We find trailers for The Broken Hearts Club, All About My Mother, Groove, Futuresport, and Go, plus the standard useless “Talent Files” that waste space on main Columbia-Tristar DVDs. Here we get brief listings for director Berlanti and actors Olyphant, Cain, and Mahoney.

Finally, we get a DVD-ROM “weblink” that goes to the main TBHC site. Here you’ll find some information about the film plus links to reviews and some “gayms”. The latter include postcards you can send to friends - or enemies - plus a message board called “The Salon” and “The Lingo”. The latter offers a gay dictionary with definitions of words that appear in the film (like “meanwhile” or “newbie”) and others that don’t. Hmm… I guess “gayms” isn’t just a cutesy synonym for “games”, since the section seems woefully short on anything that would meet that criteria. However, the site designers obviously couldn’t pass up such a crummy pun.

While The Broken Hearts Club seems to be a well-meaning film, that doesn’t make it good. On occasion it appeared moderately interesting, but it collapses beneath its pretensions and ambitions and ultimately becomes unsatisfying. The DVD provides good but unspectacular picture and sound plus a minor complement of extras. It’s nice to find a movie that depicts the experiences of young gay men in a fairly positive light without much tawdry material, but The Broken Hearts Club simply isn’t a very compelling film.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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