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.