The Broken Hearts Club


Greg Berlanti

Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Zach Braff, Dean Cain, Andrew Keegan, John Mahoney, Mary McCormack, Matt McGrath, Billy Porter, Justin Theroux

Rated R, 94 minutes

Relax... It's Just Sex
TLA Releasing, 1998

P.J. Castellaneta

Starring: Mitchell Anderson, Terrence 'T.C.' Carson, Seymour Casse, Lori Petty, Jennifer Tilly, Susan Tyrrell, Cynda Williams, Paul Winfield

Unrated, 110 minutes

With A Little Help From My Friends
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, May, 2001


Gay Cinema is no longer the almost-exclusive domain of independent films; more and more it is exploding into the mainstream. In the past year, Madonna and Rupert Evert played a straight woman and a gay man who became parents, and Philip Seymour Hoffmann portrayed a drag queen who teaches stroke victim Robert DeNiro how to speak again. This increased visibility is a good thing but there is a downside as well. The movies are getting more slick and more commercial, and way less adventurous than their indie forebearers.

A case in point is last year's The Broken Hearts Club which, despite good intentions, is the most bland gay film this reviewer has seen in years. Audiences unfamiliar with queer cinema's past may enjoy it, but I found it to be about as profound as an episode of TV's Friends, except not as funny.

The story centers around a group of young gay friends in their mid-to-late 20s. Dennis (Timothy Oliphant) wants more out of life than just scoring with a gym bunny. His roommate Cole (Dean Cain) hops from bed to bed, leaving numerous broken hearts in his wake. Taylor is an African American flamer who watches Joan Crawford movies after his boyfriend dumps him, Howie and Marshall are two ex-lovers who continue to sleep together, and Patrick is a plain-looking man who is angry that beautiful hunks ignore him. Ann, his lesbian sister wants his sperm so that she and her lover can have a baby. A "newbie" named Kevin joins the group and latches onto Dennis. Jack (Fraser's John Mahoney), a restaurant owner who imparts words of wisdom and occasional Shakespearean quotes, functions as the group's patriarch. Every summer he coaches the restaurant's softball team, even though they lose every game.

Hoping to find a fine ensemble comedy-drama along the lines of Barry Levinson's Diner or John Hughes' The Breakfast Club, I had to suffer instead through 94 minutes of one-dimensional characters who trod out every imaginable gay cliche. It's not that the film is bad, it is just colossally mediocre and unmemorable. There is nothing new or fresh about it that we haven't encountered before and I haven't seen this much queer self loathing since 1970's The Boys in the Band. And if I see the dreaded "turkey baster" plotline where two lesbians nag a man for sperm one more time...

There is nothing wrong with character-driven movies, provided that a strong script exists to back it up. What insights do occur are often buried by both clumsy writing and directing, though the actors do their best with the material. A lot happens, but most of it lacks the dramatic force needed to give the scenes any punch, resulting in a very flat movie. Knowing that the story is going nowhere, the filmmakers pull out all the stops in the third act by pointlessly killing off a main character and then allowing another to almost die of a drug overdose. The end result is two completely different films spliced together; the first being an often-puerile teen comedy and the second a maudlin Lifetime TV movie.

There are other problems as well. Since The Broken Hearts Club is set in LA, where are the Latino characters? With one exception, all the men are white. Taylor, the film's lone African American, is such a screaming nelly queen that he could be Amos and Andy in drag. Other annoying cliches include Dennis' obsession with Karen Carpenter. The baseball scenes go for every easy laugh as our pathetic athletes lose every game except for one played against old men with canes and walkers. Meanwhile, most of the principals whine and obsess about wanting a relationship while none of them makes any effort to know Jack's longtime partner; they don't even know his name and just call him "Purple Guy" after the color of his shirts.

Ten years ago this movie might have broken some ground but instead it is just a glossy re-tread of themes we've seen over and over. At least no one dies from AIDS. While it might entertain a receptive straight audience, it's old hat to the gay arthouse crowd. It's refreshing to see films like this getting a wide release, but it would be nice if they aspired to rise above the mundane. Other recent films, like Edge of Seventeen have done a much better job.

One more irritating point is the film's rating; it is rated R despite the fact that there is 1. no nudity 2. no sex scenes 3. no violence and 4. no intimacy beyond a couple kisses and hugs. Why is this film rated R when so many straight youth flicks get away with a PG-13? There's something rotten in the State of Denmark.

A much better film is 1999's Relax... It's Just Sex. written and directed by P.J. Castellaneta. Regular Outcome readers might remember my review two years ago of Together/Alone, a quiet black & white indie classic about two men who trick and then talk the night away. This wonderful 1991 gem was filmed for only $7,000 and, according to the credits, was produced, written, directed and catered by P.J. Castellaneta. Relax is his second film and enjoys a much bigger canvas than his freshman effort. It is an ensemble comedy with original characters and a cutting edge script to boot.

While Broken Hearts started off with a very unfunny scene in which the guys try to talk like straight men for five minutes, Relax begins with a hilarious black and white 1950s-style sex education film that depicts two "lipstick lesbians" and two "gym queens" while a narrator announces "See, nothing to be frightened of." The film then cuts to Vincie (Mitchell Anderson) in bed with another man and having an internal crisis while he wonders if he should swallow.

There is much to applaud in Castellaneta's film, especially the fact that the cast is multi-racial. Vincie is a writer who is unlucky in love. His friends include Tara (Jennifer Tilly), who lives with a Latino man named Gus and is obsessed with having his baby before he goes off on a trek to see the world. Gus' brother, Harvey, has just been diagnosed with HIV and hooks up with an avant-garde African-American painter named Buzz. Dwight and Diego make the rest of the group sick with their constant affection. Serena, a young black woman, has just broken up with Megan, her WASP partner of nine years. Megan has left Serena for a man and Serena rebounds with Robin, an insecure woman who laments that she is ugly and that next to her "Janet Reno looks feminine."

This diverse cast meets life's challenges with humor and wit. Each is a unique individual. Best of all, no stereotypes rear their ugly heads. Dwight and Diego, for example, are born-again Christians who attend spiritual retreats and make love to Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." In one of my favorite moments, the usual cliches about bringing home a gay lover to meet the parents are overturned. When Megan introduces her new boyfriend, her shocked mother asks "Where's Serena? What am I going to tell my friends at PFLAG?"

Castellaneta doesn't shy away from tackling controversial subjects. Buzz is one of those deluded souls who believe that HIV doesn't cause AIDS and everyone worries that his half-baked conspiracy theories might damage Harvey's health. One of the stand-out moments is a vicious gay bashing. Vincie, who was traumatized by a similar beating he received in college, is attacked by another group of homophobes. He is almost sodomized with a beer bottle before his friends appear to rescue him. But then, Vincie fights back and attacks the lone invader who failed to escape. Suddenly the aggressor, Vincie's pent up frustrations are released like a floodgate. It is one of the most audacious, powerful and disturbing scenes I have seen in all of queer cinema. Its appearance in the middle of what had been up to that point a comedy is both jarring and unsettling but it is an honest scene and I've certainly never seen anything like it before. This is a film that is not afraid to take risks and challenge its audience... a true rarity.

Relax...It's Just Sex might not be as slick looking and polished as The Broken Hearts Club, but the writing, directing and acting accomplish what few ensemble comedies ever achieve. And it's refreshing to see a film where most of the cast is gay and no one is whining about their sexuality. Relax is funny, sad, and unforgettable.

A warning to potential renters: When I saw Relax two years ago at the Anjelika Theatre, the film was unrated. The VHS tape for rent at the chain stores is rated R. The film was cut because Blockbuster does not carry NC-17 or unrated films. [Reviewer's note 2009: This is no longer the case, but it was then. The film is now available uncut on DVD.] I rented that version last year, and was appalled to discover that the entire second scene of the movie (the one about swallowing) is missing. Any R-rated Michael Douglas movie has more explicit sex than there is in the scene that was torn from Castellaneta's film. Straight sex is okay but gay sex isn't? The double standards applied by the ratings board are enough to drive a filmgoer mad. To see the film in its entirety, rent the unrated director's cut at Rainbow Pride in Buddies and support one of our local gay-owned businesses.


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Reviewer's note, 2007: Interjecting a bit of autobiography and historical context here. In many of my older reviews there are references to these films being unavailable at Blockbuster Video. Times have changed, but in the 90s, that was the case. They were a "family store." Blockbuster's policy back then (since changed) of not carrying NC-17 or unrated films forced many filmmakers to emasculate their films to get an R rating so Blockbuster "the family store" would carry it. .I usually reported if the films were available for rent at Buffalo's two funkiest video stores - Mondo Video, which was owned by the film critic from Artvoice Magazine, M. Faust, and was the place to go to get the hard to find titles - and Rainbow Pride, a gay gift shop run by Frank Ball; he also rented videos. For years, his store was the front room in a popular gay bar, Buddies.

Anyway, when I wrote this review you could not find titles like these at Blockbuster. And I often ranted about it. I've left them in these reviews as I put them online because they are a kind of time capsule. Because early in the millennium there was a changing of the guard at Blockbuster. You could rent Queer as Folk there now! Their old policy of no gay films and no unrated films was gone, finished. And that was good news for filmmakers and film lovers everywhere. I even ended one of my columns with a public service announcement that Blockbuster changed its policies and now carried gay films. I'm not being coerced into writing this, I'm just being fair because that was a big turnaround. Of course it was also around the time I discovered and saw that I could rent almost anything from them. Foreign films, independents and of course queer cinema. This note is just to explain how times have changed (for the better) and it is much easier to find queer titles now, whether for rent or for sale. The internet of course got us out of the dark ages too.