- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2000

Two out of four stars

TITLE: "The Broken Hearts Club"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor, revolving around homosexual relationships)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Greg Berlanti

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

In the spirit of full disclosure, perhaps I should mention that Greg Berlanti, the young writer-director of "The Broken Hearts Club," a comedy about a circle of homosexual friends (and sometimes lovers) in West Hollywood, was a classmate at Northwestern University of two young women I happen to know personally: my daughter Jane and her friend Julie Plec, who shares a co-producing credit on this promising but also tentative and deflation-prone first feature.

A civilian, Jane is not professionally involved in the movie business but takes a fond interest in the progress of several classmates who made a beeline from Evanston, Ill., to Hollywood.

In a literal sense, the title alludes to a restaurant called Jack of Broken Hearts, both a hangout and a workplace for several characters. The proprietor is a genial middle-aged homosexual named Jack, played by John Mahoney of the "Frasier" TV series.

Reputed to be happily domiciled with a minor character, evidently a piano-playing fixture at the bistro, Jack employs a handful of younger, twentysomething chaps in his kitchen, at least part time. This group includes the protagonist, Dennis, portrayed by Timothy Olyphant, whose aspirations as a photographer seem to be lingering in some pre-professional phase.

We're introduced to Dennis' intimates, about a half-dozen guys who appear to share lovelorn insecurities and preoccupations predicated to some extent on rating themselves as distant also-rans in a gay social setting where "a lot of 10s are looking for 11s."

Once the roll call is more or less out of the way, the liabilities of promiscuous dating as both romantic goal and dramatic subject become inescapable.

Dennis and his fellow characters would be more interesting if they had professional obligations that somehow dignified or at least distracted from their courtship woes and setbacks, which tend to acquire an annoying monotony and superficiality.

One member of the group, Dean Cain of the "Superman" series as an aspiring film actor named Cole, is maneuvered to the verge of a breakthrough: He gets a role in a feature and manages to seduce the leading man while on location.

The location interlude helps break some of the West Hollywood monotony, but Mr. Berlanti leaves a couple of intriguing prospects barely developed: the likelihood that Cole, the potential "10" in the "Broken Hearts" group, might be about to "outgrow" his single-digit pals, and his tacit understanding that a high-stakes romantic liaison also obliges him to protect the double life of his conquest, who is married and prefers a heterosexual public identity.

Anyway, Cole's upward mobility, professionally and erotically, suggests stronger dramatic possibilities than Mr. Berlanti fiddles with when concentrating on Dennis or the others, who begin to resemble sketchy variations on the coeds in "Where the Boys Are," the wedding guests in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" or the roomies in "Friends."

As a practical matter, it probably would be easier to get to know the gallery introduced in "Broken Hearts" if they were part of a sitcom.

However, Mr. Berlanti appears to prefer a droll, conversational idiom that might not be sufficiently crass and explicit for the prurient needs of either network or cable producers.

Seeing a gay American variant of Eric Rohmer emerge from somewhere might be amusing and edifying, but Mr. Berlanti's ability to answer to that rarefied description remains a matter of conjecture.

It is encouraging that human interest and comic dialogue appear to be strong suits. One of the wittier remarks entrusted to Dennis: "The only thing I'm good at is being gay; I need to move on."

This suggests an astute perspective that can see beyond the next crush or fleeting bed partner. European travel beckons Dennis at the conclusion of "Broken Hearts Club." Travel for its own sake and absorbing professions might do a lot to reduce the dependence of Dennis and his friends on arrested amorous development.

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