[Screen It]

(2000) (Timothy Olyphant, Dean Cain) (R)

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Romantic Comedy: A group of gay friends try to sort out being gay and its repercussions on their sex, social and love lives.
Dennis (TIMOTHY OLYPHANT) is a gay 28-year-old, West Hollywood photographer who's begun to grow tired of having casual sex and is looking for something more. As he does so and attempts to provide some guidance to Kevin (ANDREW KEEGAN), a 23-year-old who's just starting to come out of the closet, his various gay friends also find themselves confronting their sex, social and love lives.

There's Cole (DEAN CAIN), the handsome actor who seemingly has no problem leading a life filled with nothing but casual sex. Howie (MATT McGRATH), on the other hand, hasn't been able to get over his breakup with Marshall (JUSTIN THEROUX); Benji (ZACH BRAFF) finds that he's looking for love and sex in all of the wrong places; while Taylor (BILLY PORTER), the most flamboyant of the bunch, has just been dumped via a long distance phone call.

Patrick (BEN WEBER), who laments the fact that he's not as good looking as his friends, faces an entirely different dilemma. His sister, Anne (MARY McCORMACK), wants him to donate his sperm to her lesbian lover, Leslie (NIA LONG), so that they can have a child together.

As the men hang out at the "Jack of Broken Hearts" restaurant and club owned by their "mother hen," Jack (JOHN MAHONEY), and discuss all things homosexual, the men try to sort out their various relationships and ideologies about their romantic lives.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Like many other minority groups - and perhaps even to a greater degree - homosexuals haven't been that well represented in mainstream Hollywood offerings. Sure, gay characters are making more progressive inroads on TV, they populate small, independent films, and are the sidekicks in mainstream pictures such as "My Best Friend's Wedding."

As everyone in the industry knows, gay and lesbian performers have been working for decades in Hollywood, albeit usually in the closet and almost always playing straight characters, at least until relatively recently. Yet, there haven't been many lead characters in major Hollywood films that are gay all the way through the story, or such films that deal primarily with gay characters or being gay without the usual stereotypes or the specter of AIDS looming about.

Perhaps there's fear - founded or not - of a homophobic backlash or that mainstream, heterosexual viewers simply won't see a gay-based film. The closest such film to gain popular approval was 1997's "In & Out," but gays reportedly complained that the film was straight Hollywood's view of being gay and thus not the authentic thing.

I'm certainly not in the position to confirm or deny that statement, and I can't attest whether writer/director Greg Berlanti's feature film debut, "The Broken Hearts Club," is any closer to the truth and/or reality. I can say, however, that despite it being a reasonably entertaining film with a mainstream veneer, it's probably not the picture that will generate the great homosexual crossover at the movies.

That's simply because it's a relatively small-scale film (being released by Sony's "art house" arm, Sony Pictures Classics) and doesn't contain the performers or basic story that will have the masses storming the box office to see it.

All of that said, the question that remains to be asked is whether the film works in telling its story. The answer is yes. A tale of a bunch of friends who are trying to sort out their social, sexual and love lives that just so happens to feature a predominantly gay set of characters, the film also passes the substitution litmus test.

Since Berlanti (a co-executive producer for TV's "Dawson's Creek) is obviously trying to show that gay people are like everyone else and face the same sort of interpersonal longings, dilemma and heartbreak, one should be able to replace the gay characters with straight ones and essentially end up with the same film. While the substitution wouldn't be perfect since the characters talk so much about everything related to being gay, for the most part the film would otherwise work as a straight romantic comedy.

In fact, and because of all that talk, the film is reminiscent of a gay version of HBO's "Sex and the City" as crossed with any number of films where the characters sit around and make witty cultural references (here they talk about what cartoon characters might be gay in one scene and compare themselves to a tribe of wild monkeys in a fun montage) while onscreen titles define certain gay or social terms while identifying the film's "chapters."

Some of that gay related talk does get a bit tedious after a while, however, and not because of the homosexual angle, but simply because of the repetition (imagine a bunch of painters or accountants sitting around talking about what cartoon characters would make the best painters or accountants). In fact, the group's "father figure" character, warmly played by "Frasier's" John Mahoney ("The American President," "Primal Fear"), even comments that the men spend too much of their time and lives talking about being gay rather than just being themselves.

As such, Berlanti seems most interested in showing a wide-ranging cross-section of gay characters who ultimately find that their platonic friendship and common bond is the one thing that's holding them back from growing as individuals yet is also what can get them through their various personal dilemmas that come in all shapes and sizes throughout the film.

While that has the sounds of possibly being melodramatic (and it occasionally borders on that with some contrived developments that are supposed to tug at our heartstrings) and some of the characters border on gay stereotypes, the film benefits from the often witty dialogue and the flesh and blood characters that Berlanti has fashioned, along with the performances of those who embody them.

The best involve Timothy Olyphant ("Gone In 60 Seconds," "Go") as the man who's torn between seeing a newly "out" young man - credibly played by Andrew Keegan ("10 Things I Hate About You," TV's "Party of Five") - and his desire to stop having casual sex, and Dean Cain ("Best Man," TV's "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman") as a love 'em and leave 'em type character who discovers what it's like to be on the receiving end of being used.

Other performances from the likes of Matt McGrath ("Boys Don't Cry," "The Impostors") and Ben Weber ("Twister," "The Mirror Has Two Faces") are good, while the lone female characters are represented by Mary McCormack ("Mystery, Alaska," "Private Parts") and Nia Long ("Boiler Room," "The Best Man") as lesbian lovers who want to have a child together in a subplot that doesn't really add much to the proceedings.

Overall, and notwithstanding the gay angle, the film doesn't really offer anything new or explore tenets of love, sex or friendship that haven't been delved into many times before. Nonetheless, Berlanti manages to create credible and likable enough characters and make us sympathize with them that the film comes off as a moderately entertaining and enjoyable experience.

While it's doubtful it will become the huge crossover film that some are predicting, it's sure to be a hit among gay viewers and certainly serves as another stepping stone in the effort of presenting gay characters and stories to straight, mainstream audiences. "The Broken Hearts Club," while probably not for everyone, rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 6, 2000 / Posted October 13, 2000

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