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THE BROKEN HEARTS CLUB

In one of the many mawkish conversations that occur in Greg Berlanti’s trite ensemble piece about the trials and tribulations of a group of gay pals in L.A., the old, wise character Jack, around whose bar the guys congregate, speaks sagely to one of the brood about the often-frustrating search for a significant other. The problem, he emphasizes, is that everybody seems to be looking for somebody who’s exceptional; but most everyone is just “gay and average.” As “The Broken Hearts Club” demonstrates, however, there’s such a thing as being gay and below average, too.

Although its makers would never admit it, their picture has a lot in common with William Friedkin’s “The Boys in the Band” (1970), in which a bunch of homosexuals indulged in lacerating behavior toward one another during a party. Here the fellows who make up the “club” don’t exhibit the same degree of self-loathing that those in the “band” displayed, and, the times being very different, they don’t engage in the sort of self-destructive behavior that the miserable denizens of Friedkin’s picture did. But despite Berlanti’s obvious desire to make the characters here less uptight and more at ease with themselves, his creations remain for the most part fundamentally self-absorbed and almost exclusively focused on the difficulties of their interrelationships; they exchange lots of catty dialogue that’s supposed to have a sharply humorous edge, but are all basically sick at heart when you dig beneath the surface bravado. And that’s not much unlike what Friedkin purveyed in his filmization of Mart Crowley’s play. The more things have changed, the more they seem the same here.

It would help if Berlanti were able to draw his characters with any real depth or poignancy. But this scripter of “Dawson’s Creek” shows about the same level of insight and profundity on the big screen as he does on the small one; his theatrical script is as shallow as the ones he cranks out for his series. The figures in “Club” are all glib, superficial types, as stereotypical as those whom Crowley fashioned so long ago. There’s the aging artist Dennis (Timothy Olyphant), who’s reached a mid-life crisis, and his dashing if a bit dim roommate Cole (Dean Cain). There’s Kevin, the kid just coming out (Andrew Keegan). There’s effeminate Taylor (Billy Porter) who’s destroyed by his lover’s infidelity, and disconsolate Patrick (Ben Weber) who’s asked by his lesbian sister to father the child she and her partner want, and Benji (Zach Braff) who links up with a gym guy to unhappy effect, and Howie (Matt McGrath) who’s lovesick over his ex Marshall (Justin Theroux). And presiding over all, like an amiable den mother, is the lovable Jack. All these characters bicker as they talk interminably about their emotional turmoil; some of the individual lines are lively enough, but as a whole the discourse is just too facile and contrived to seem anything but what it is: stagey phoniness. And then Berlanti tosses in “crises”–breakups, struggles over partners, career choices, overdoses, even a convenient heart attack–to drag the piece toward resolutions for various of the characters and a predictably heart-tugging finale. It’s all so calculated and dramatically obvious as to resemble a season’s worth of a WB series crammed into a mere ninety minutes.

Most of the cast doesn’t help, overplaying with the customary gusto of those saddled with the task of depicting stereotypical gays (even the veteran Mahoney falls into the trap, though Porter is the worst offender). The only exceptions are Cain and Keegan, who manage to be unforced and natural rather than over-the-top; Cain in particular draws an affable, comfortable figure.

But unless you want to see a former Superman playing a gay guy, “The Broken Hearts Club” has disappointingly little to offer. At another point amidst the verbiage one of the crew complains that despite their friendship, the members of the club make each other miserable. He’s far too modest: they make the audience pretty miserable, too.

BAIT

“I’ve got a bomb,” Jamie Foxx shouts during the chaotic climax of “Bait.” He’s speaking, of course, in the character of Alvin Sanders, a small-time but soft-hearted criminal who’s not nearly as cool as he thinks, and who at the moment is trying to race a van filled with ticking explosives away from a crowd of potential victims. But the line might as well be spoken by Foxx himself to describe his latest cinematic vehicle. Even by the extremely low standards of today’s action comedies, Antoine Fuqua’s sophomore feature is staggeringly incoherent, illogical, and unfunny. The plot has to do with how fast-talking but persistently unsuccessful Alvin becomes the unwitting tool of U.S. Treasury agents, who implant a radio transmitter in his jaw and release him from prison in the hope that he’ll attract the notice of a master thief (the enigmatic Bristol, played by Doug Hutchison). Bristol, you see, has masterminded a huge gold heist from the government, but his confederate Jaster (Robert Pastorelli) got away with all the loot, only to be jailed on a DWI and put in a cell with our hero before conveniently expiring of a heart attack, which prevented his disclosing where he’d hidden the gold. The feds’ plan is surreptitiously to persuade Bristol, using all sorts of high-tech gadgetry, that Alvin knows where the loot is stashed, and then to free the unsuspecting con and tail him until Bristol can be captured trying to contact him. Needless to say, the agents prove decidedly inept, Bristol virtually omniscient, and Alvin far more complicated than expected, leading to many complications on the way to a bang-up showdown that occurs, for some unexplained reason, at a race track. A few bodies fall along the way, but don’t you just know that by the close Alvin and the chief Treasury agent, gruff Edgar Clenteen (David Morse), have developed a grudging respect for one another?

If you think that all this sounds like an obvious ripoff of “48 Hours” (1982), you’d be right, but the result isn’t nearly as good. Foxx is a deft comedian and a potentially charming leading man, but he seems definitely to need help choosing the right roles: he was stranded in the lame farce “Held Up” earlier this year, and though “Bait” is obviously a better-financed project, it’s even more dispiriting because it’s far more violent, as well as messier and more disjointed. Nor does the script employ Foxx’s wise-cracking persona well; some of his riffs offer sporadic laughs (improvised, perhaps), but mostly they’re pretty drab, and when the star is (inevitably) trussed up and tortured by the bad-guy, he seems uncomfortable in more ways than one. It’s a misuse of a considerable comic talent.

The rest of the cast is poorly used, too. David Morse, who’s done some splendid work in the past, is a one-note bore as the agent who tries to make Alvin his pawn, and David Paymer his typically smirky self as Edgar’s subordinate. (One of the main difficulties Morse and Paymer, as well as the lesser actors playing their government confederates, have is that for the most part they’re clustered in a room looking at computer screens and eavesdropping on radio conversations. Hasn’t it yet become abundantly clear to filmmakers that such sequences, however many “jokes” they’re laced with and however spiffy the equipment on display, are deadeningly dull?) Hutchison, who overacted the nasty Percy Wetmore alongside the more stoic Morse in “The Green Mile,” does a bargain-basement imitation of John Malkovich as Bristol. Kimberly Elise shows some spunk as Lisa, Alvin’s erstwhile girlfriend (and surprisingly to him, the mother of his child), with whom he reconnects after his release and who encourages him to go straight, but her part is clearly designed merely to provide some jeopardy at the end, and she can’t overcome its formulaic character. Mike Epps is more irritating than humorous as Alvin’s inept brother, and Robert Pastorelli, whom you might recall from “Murphy Brown,” seriously overdoes the gagging and chest-rubbing associated with the dying Jaster.

Ultimately, though, one shouldn’t blame the actors too much. The real villains here are scripters Andrew and Adam Scheinman and Tony Gilroy, who never managed to fashion the borrowed elements of their screenplay into a coherent whole, and director Fuqua, who, instead of trying to clarifying the plot strands, is merely intent on demonstrating a sense of visual pizzazz. As a result we get a lot of jumpy cuts and innumerable shots of the same blue-hued urban landscapes for which he showed such affection in his first film “The Replacement Killers”–enough, in fact, to drag out the movie to an unconscionable full two hours–but precious little sense of chronology or topography. (How long is Alvin supposed to have been in prison, anyway? And how does a horse-racing track show up in the middle of New York City?) Fuqua doesn’t even stage the action set-pieces competently: the car-chases and explosions are too closely shot and jerkily edited to engender much excitement. They provoke vertigo instead.

So though “Bait” might seem attractive on the surface, the prospective viewer is hereby warned not to bite.