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“The Broken Hearts Gallery,” Reviewed: A Rom-Com Showcase for the Great Geraldine Viswanathan


At a time when romantic comedies are often enfeebled either by sentiment or cynicism, saccharine tones or absurd premises, a new one, “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” written and directed by Natalie Krinsky (and opening on Friday in some place called “theatres”), bridges the gap with a high concept. It is, unfortunately, a concept so high that it rarely touches the ground, and its theoretical ingenuity leaves plenty of empty dramatic space to be filled. That work is done by its lead actress, Geraldine Viswanathan, who shows, as she did in previous roles in “Blockers” and “Bad Education,” that she’s among the most talented performers of her generation. She’s only in need of a project at the level of her artistry. In “The Broken Hearts Gallery”—Krinsky’s first feature—Viswanathan’s performance lends the movie its sole impression of vitality and spontaneity, to go with its one bright light of conceptual inspiration.

“The Broken Hearts Gallery” is a good bad movie, one that gathers peripheral pleasures around its hollow center and the Tinkertoy construction of the plot. Viswanathan plays Lucy Gulliver, a twenty-six-year-old Brooklynite who aspires to found her own art gallery and, when the action starts, is working as a gallery assistant—but not for long. She’s also dating one of her bosses, Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the gallery’s thirty-five-year-old second-in-command. At a company event, when he publicly dumps her for his ex, Amelia (Tattiawna Jones), a Francophile doctor, Lucy drinks too much, makes a scene in front of clients, and gets fired by the gallery owner and founder, Eva Woolf (who pronounces her first name with a short “e”—a spirited archness that’s played to the joyful hilt by Bernadette Peters). In chaos and panic, Lucy cute-meets Nick (Dacre Montgomery), who is trying to renovate—hands-on—an abandoned Y.M.C.A. and turn it into a boutique hotel.

If exhaustion hasn’t set in from all that setup, know that Lucy has a long string of failed relationships, and her longtime way of mourning them is by keeping—or, as her roommates, Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo), say, hoarding—souvenirs of her exes. Lucy visits Nick at the half-built, scrap-laden renovation site while carrying a trash bag of those souvenirs (long story); he suddenly pulls a tie—Max’s—out of the bag and hangs it on a piece of drywall, which Lucy is suddenly inspired to label the Broken Heart Gallery (singular). The next day, she has another inspiration: she photographs it and puts the picture up on social media, it goes viral, attracts other souvenir donors (as well as some financial donors), and puts Lucy nearly instantly on the art-world map (complete with a two-page spread in New York).

Given the project’s genesis from the spontaneous collaboration of Lucy and Nick, their couple-hood is in the cards from the start—yet getting them together takes more than an hour of machinations, a tedious obstacle course that includes winks and nods at serious life consequences, but resolves them with what might as well be a wave of the magic wand (usually off-screen). Whenever the substance of the gallery, and of Lucy’s devotion to it, comes to the fore, the movie comes to life; but those moments are all too brief, and the movie all too jumpy for its substance to be developed. (It would be good to see more of the empathetic, therapeutic element to the gallery, when Lucy video-records the donors to the museum telling the tales of heartbreak that are behind the objects that they contribute, like Lucy, of “Peanuts,” with the five-cent psychiatrist’s booth.)

Viswanathan never rests, because the movie won’t let her. The script is more or less completely inside out—most of the actions and relationship moments that the story evokes are kept rigorously off-screen, in the interest of fabricating suspense, reveals, or fantasy. Instead, her performance has to generate the movie’s semblance of action. With no job and no income, after three weeks of slothing about depressed and a day of acquaintance with Nick’s hotel, Lucy volunteers to work for him—for free—in exchange for developing the Broken Heart Gallery there. (“I can paint, I can saw, I can lift and lay tile, grout—that’s a thing,” she tells him.) Between Lucy’s handmade gallery and Nick’s artisanal hotel, the movie is a study in industrial arts and crafts, yet the two are not shown hoisting anything heavier than a thumbtack (with one small plot-pointed exception) or working at anything more strenuous than karaoke. The story pivots on matters of money, which then shows up by the bagful, with minimal fuss and unexpressed motives. Lucy is passionate about art but hardly talks about it; Nick’s life in hospitality is tossed off in a one-liner that leaves a lot to unpack. The story involves friends becoming collaborators becoming lovers, but the loam of the relationship, the talk on which a friendship can be based and a relationship can be built, never happens: the characters are identifiable at first sight.

Yet Krinsky manages to make these skittery contrivances bounce vivaciously from moment to moment by way of copious, strenuous, idiosyncratic dialogue that does very little of what dialogue does at its best—express emotions and ideas, bring experiences to the fore, crystallize problems and seek resolutions. Instead we get snippy-snappy jousting and joshing of purely ornamental import, which the cast uses as a springboard for gymnastic verbal virtuosity, and, in Viswanathan’s case especially, for ornamental flourishes. Ably seconded by Soo, Gordon, and Peters, along with Arturo Castro and Megan Ferguson, as Nick’s friends, and with Montgomery as an ably stolid foil, she lends every twist and tweak a glittery wit, and every facet of every plot point an emphatic specificity. Her comedic talents are distinctively cinematic: fixed and darting glances, raised or lowered eyebrows, a tilt of the head, a sudden hesitation all require a camera to magnify and isolate them amid the kaleidoscopic whirl. The camera work isn’t virtuosic to match, but it’s at least attentive.

The attention remains, however, somewhat nearsighted. The movie’s cast is admirably wide-ranging, yet little is done with its diversity—here, identity is purely visual, as if merely decorative. Though set in New York, the city is hardly recognizable at street level: the best city scenes are in the credit sequence at the head of the film, a fantasy-infused vision in which giant-sized souvenirs (a padlock, a thimble, a billiard ball, a salt shaker, a snow globe) block New York streets and sidewalks and even a subway platform. (Much of the movie was shot on location in Toronto.)

It turns out (as I discovered far into writing this review) that the gallery at the center of the film, or some version thereof, actually exists, or existed, in Croatia, and inspired Krinsky to build a story of personal import—rooted in her own experience of breakup and firing—around it. The element of documentary—whether of the filmmaker’s life experience, the emotionally charged collaborative art venture, the New York credit sequence, or the actors’ supercharged and overdriven performances—invests the movie with a powerful engine to drive elements of whimsical and symbolic fantasy. Instead, the fantasy takes over and, like the sidecar in “Duck Soup,” leaves its source of power behind.

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