' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Broken Hearts Club

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Some Drivel On...The Broken Hearts Club

In “The Broken Hearts Club” (2000) — beg your pardon, that’s “The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy” — there is a moment when Dennis (Timothy Olyphant) and a couple of his pals are strolling through West Hollywood, where they reside, and past an expansive mural of Hollywood greats — Bacall, Bogie, Marilyn Monroe, etc. The movie is not equating the likes of Olyphant, and Zach Braff and Andrew Keegan, etc., with cinema royalty, more just cashing in on the opportunity for a nifty vérité visual, just as I am not equating the likes of Olyphant, as well as Zach Braff and Andrew Keegan, etc., with cinema royalty. No, the shot struck me because whereas once these movies were very much of the present through which I was living, they are now very much of the past, long gone and weirdly retro, reminiscent of someone from ten years ago watching an explicit 80s movie, or someone from the 80s watching a movie with a 50s sock hop.

The late 90s were a boom time for teen comedies, as The Ringer’s oral history of “Can’t Hardly Wait” (1997) recently outlined. But it was also a time for young adult rom coms, whether they were weirdly beloved (“Never Been Kissed”), rightly forgotten (“Boys and Girls”), or destined to be remembered by this blog forever (“Kicking & Screaming”). “The Broken Hearts Club” fits firmly in the latter camp, where the world seems comprised of endless conversation, and where there are several central characters rather than one or two because they lean on each other even as they try to steel themselves for going it alone. There was just one difference with “The Broken Hearts Club”: its characters were gay.

Then again, despite their orientation, in falling back on conventional narrative structure and tropes, “The Broken Hearts Club” hardly feels singular. Each character is given a crisis ripped from the pages of a thousand crises before them. Those crises are not really presented as all that challenging while their resolutions, per the sitcom tradition from which writer/director Greg Berlanti emerged, are laughably un-arduous, highlighted by the after-school special detour Braff’s Benji takes into drug addiction. Such an easygoing vibe yields equal victory and defeat. Victory in so much as rather than chocking the proceedings full of stereotypical gay jokes these characters could, sort of, be any characters in any movie; defeat in so much as making them any characters in any movie does a disservice to their own individuality. Either way, this familiarity is sort of what I liked about “The Broken Hearts Club” at least in so much as I was someone watching the movie for the first time 18 years after it was released. And if from here on out I, as a critic, rule myself out of order, well, dammit, that’s just a risk I’ll have to take.

Nostalgia is, as it is any setting, a potential trap. But “The Broken Hearts Club” isn’t a movie made now set then trying to conjure up false nostalgia; it is (was) a late 90s movie. And seeing the fashion, the music, the scenes of parties set in sparsely decorated homes with plain white refrigerators filled only with beer took me back to when movies like these were the norm, when everything on screen would have been as it was – at least, that is, for me. “The Broken Hearts Club” isn’t so much a flashback to an era as a time, a time in your life when your problems don’t run as deep and what problems you do have feel as if they can be conquered with minimal effort. This time is not a lie, per se, more like a mirage, one that eventually just vanishes from sight. But on a night in 2018, when Present Day America was Present Day America-ing, while watching this movie, for a brief instant, that mirage re-appeared. I knew it was merely a cinematic illusion, but I looked long and hard and happily for as long as it lasted.

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