This movie about a bunch of gay men with average problems helped a queer teenage girl imagine a place for herself in the world, and that makes it a little bit extraordinary.
In my home dimension, the one where The Broken Hearts Club is rightfully and universally revered as a gay classic, every gay bar in town hosted a gathering of crying queers in Hawaiian shirts this week. But in this one, I feel like the only person who isn’t ready to move on. All the headlines about John Mahoney’s death mentioned his role on Frasier, but that’s not how I’ll remember him. To me he was first and finally Jack, the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, Shakespeare-quoting father figure to a group of young gay men fumbling their way toward maturity in my favorite movie in the entire world.
In the early oughts, The Broken Hearts Club was a staple of my high school Gay-Straight Alliance’s movie-night sleepovers, and it’s been a stabilizing force in my life ever since. I’ve watched it to get over breakups and to calm down during anxiety attacks. I love The Broken Hearts Club with the unabashed enthusiasm of a 15-year-old, but I also look back on it with the clear eyes of adulthood and think there is no better movie to have shepherded me through my tumultuous queer adolescence.
The Broken Hearts Club is a gay movie, but it is about gay friendship, not gay sex. The sex is there, but it’s secondary to the plot. A group of gay men in their late 20s wait tables at the Jack of Broken Hearts, under the watchful eye of its proprietor Jack (Mahoney), while halfheartedly trying to figure out their lives. Patrick (Ben Weber) must decide whether to become a sperm donor for his sister and her girlfriend. Taylor (Billy Porter) reels from an unexpected breakup. Cole (Dean Cain) is a serial monogamist who leaves a string of devastated men behind him. At the center of the story is Timothy Olyphant’s Dennis, the bed-hopping life of the party, who finds himself developing feelings beyond the libidinal for one of Cole’s cast-offs, Andrew Keegan’s still semi-closeted Kevin.
Most of the momentum in the otherwise meandering plot comes from the chemistry between Dennis and Kevin; Dennis, who says “I’m 28 years old and the only thing I’m good at is being gay,” simultaneously fears and craves a more serious romance than he’s ever had. In any other movie, the story would culminate in Dennis overcoming his fear of commitment and declaring his love.
But in The Broken Hearts Club, we get something better: a protagonist who realizes that years of anonymous hookups have not really prepared him to be someone’s boyfriend. “I thought all it would take is meeting the right person, but it’s so much more than that,” he confesses to Kevin. Too often in fiction, love is the cure to all life’s ills; the moment your heart is pledged, everything else magically falls into place. Dennis knows better, and thanks to him I knew better too, even from an early age.
It’s not just Dennis whose problems can’t be solved by a proclamation of devotion. In the whole crowded ensemble cast, only one storyline – that of Howie and Marshall, who broke up but still keep going home together – ends in comfortably coupled bliss. Everyone else, including Dennis and Kevin, is single by the time the credits roll. The Broken Hearts Club bills itself as a romantic comedy, but it’s the friendships that really drive these characters’ growth.
“Sometimes I wonder what you boys would do if you weren’t gay,” Jack teases. “It was easy when you couldn’t talk about it. Now it’s all you talk about.” It’s true that Dennis and his friends talk a lot about men: who’s a “meanwhile,” who’s “straight-acting,” who they’d kick out of bed. They play “Who Can Act Straight The Longest” and discuss which of them is which Steel Magnolias character. Their orientation is foundational to their friendship and their lives, but they don’t spend much time talking about what it means to be gay, or how hard it is to be gay, or wishing they weren’t gay. Roger Ebert described it as “a rare gay-themed movie that relaxes.” I’d describe it as a movie where gay life isn’t measured against a hetero default. Straightness barely exists even in the margins of The Broken Hearts Club, and in its absence, queerness is joyful and flourishing.
Like heterosexuality, biological relationships are scarce in The Broken Hearts Club. Apart from Patrick’s sister Anne, none of the main characters have a visible family of origin. Kevin comes out to his parents offscreen, and Benji grosses himself out with the realization that Cole could probably seduce his dad, but blood relatives have little influence over these characters’ lives. Friendship is the key, but it’s more than just companionship; these guys love each other even when they don’t like each other. At the beginning of Broken Hearts, Dennis says he doesn’t know when he realized he was gay, but meeting his friends made him realize that he would be OK. The movie ends with the same line, this time delivered by Kevin. It’s the circle of life: you come out, you hook up, you get your heart broken, but then you find a group of fellow queers who will support you (and give you shit) through all the storms to come.
Chosen family, though an enormously central theme in queer life, is still only sporadically visible in queer media. Long denied the legally and socially sanctioned pathways to creating a family, LGBTQ people have developed their own traditions and kinship networks, no less important for their lack of legal standing. But in fiction, it’s still romantic relationships that usually get top billing. The Broken Hearts Club is queer not just because its male leads sleep with other dudes, but because it prioritizes an interdependent web of friendship and support over monogamous pair-bonding.
And at the center of that web is Jack. He’s not just their employer; he provides the space for this group of gay men to come together and be themselves in safety. In their unofficial clan, he’s the patriarch. He dispenses pep talks, life advice, and “emergency cobbler.” At the film’s beginning, several of Dennis’s friends take it in turn to admonish him for his casual-sex-heavy lifestyle, but it’s Jack’s loving nudge that actually brings Dennis to reconsider sleeping with a guy whose name he doesn’t remember. Jack’s death as the impetus for his mentees to face their demons might be utterly predictable, but that doesn’t make it any less devastating.
I submit that a chosen family isn’t just made up of the people you love and share your life with; it can also include the public figures and fictional characters who shape your experience of the world. Jack is prominent in the pantheon of what Dana Ward called “the many-gendered mothers of my heart.” He is my chosen family, and so is John Mahoney, the brilliant actor whose own sexuality was something of an open secret.
The Broken Hearts Club is formulaic yet subversive. It’s a gay movie that isn’t about the struggles of being gay. It’s a romantic comedy in which no one finds love. It says something profound and lasting about queer life precisely because it isn’t really trying to. “Some people are just gay and average,” says Jack in what could be the movie’s unofficial thesis statement. “We’re the strongest, I think.” This movie about a bunch of gay men with average problems helped a queer teenage girl imagine a place for herself in the world, and that makes it a little bit extraordinary.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).