Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan), the heroine of “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” is a soulfully flip 26-year-old New York art gallery assistant with a problem, or a fixation, or maybe we should call it a ruling passion. She’s so invested in her romantic relationships that each time one of them ends, she holds onto the mementos from it and treats the objects as if they were more important than the ex she broke up with. She’ll save old shoelaces, a thimble from a Monopoly game, or a pink rubber piggy bank: anything that reminds of her of the bittersweet times that were. Her Brooklyn bedroom looks like a bag lady’s knickknack museum. She’s a hoarder of lost-love nostalgia.
The movie knows this, and cracks a lot of jokes about it (the H-word is used), but it also believes in her obsession; Lucy’s over-the-top reverence for the totems of the past marks her as a romantic of three dimensions. Natalie Krinsky, who wrote and directed “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” is an unheralded filmmaker (this is her first feature), and she has a witty and spirited commercial voice. Watching the film, you know you’re seeing an unabashed spawn of “Girls” and “Sex and the City,” a kind of anthropological Williamsburg careerist rom-com set, in this case, in a woke wonderland of post-feminist awareness.
Yet Krinksy earns her “Sex and the City” tropes, like the scene where Lucy, tearfully mascara-smeared after a spectacular public meltdown, has a meet-cute moment with Nick (Dacre Montgomery), climbing into the back of his silver Prius because she thinks it’s her Lyft ride (he gives her a lift anyway). Or the fact that she works for a celebrity art dealer who “discovered Cindy Sherman in a laundromat” and is played, in a delectable wised-up legend performance, by Bernadette Peters. Or a break-up montage set to the melancholy murmur of Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted.” Or the comic sizzle of Lucy, given a chance she didn’t think she’d get, saying, “What? Did I drop acid and this is my ego death?” A line like that — and the way Viswanathan delivers it, as if she had 10 thoughts like it per minute — can spark you through a rom-com, and “The Broken Hearts Gallery” has a precociously witty synthetic tingle.
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For a time during the 1990s, the cool profession for someone to have in a movie was to be an architect. For a brief moment, it was hip chef. But in “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” we hear a new one. Nick, the dude who’s not a Lyft driver, takes Lucy to the place he’s staying, which is so under construction, with power tools everywhere, that for a moment she thinks it’s a serial killer’s lair. But no. As he explains, the place is an old YMCA that he’s turning, with second-hand-chic ingenuity, into a boutique hotel. In a real do-you-want-to-feel-old statement, he says, “I’m building a place that feels like the spots I fell in love with when I first moved to New York.” Oh, yes, those halcyon, wistfully remembered boutique-hotel days of 2007!
Lucy and Nick spark each other, and Geraldine Viswanathan, so sly as the Columbo-like student reporter in “Bad Education” (she also came close to stealing “Blockers”), creates a character of such clear-the-air wit and longing that she puts a lot of the “dizzy” rom-com heroines of the ’90s to shame. She and Dacre Montgomery, from “Stranger Things” (you’d never guess that either one is Australian), look great together and spark each other the old-fashioned way: by building romantic tension with a platonic sense of play.
Yet she’s still hung up on Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the mildly sleazy gallery worker who two-timed her with his ex. To ease her heart, she comes up with an only-in-the-movies idea she can launch right in the lobby of Nick’s hotel: an outsider-art gallery that showcases people’s mementos of romantic loss. The mundane objects we all hold onto. (She calls it the Broken Heart Gallery.) As one of her two queen-of-snark roommates puts it, “Okay, so let me get this straight. Now you’re collecting other people’s junk in addition to your own?”
That this would ever become a hot idea, driven by a feature in New York magazine, is something you sort of have to roll with. But in these love-is-an-app days, it is often asked whether true romance is dead, and “The Broken Hearts Gallery” answers that in two charmingly interlocking ways. The movie says that romance has become a series of signifiers — and to that degree, it could be on life support. At the same time, every piece of detritus Lucy collects in her gallery contains the feelings that people have given it. (The characters tell their stories right into the camera, in the cornball digital equivalent of Warhol Screen Tests.) So romance is alive. Besides, the romantic comedy, as a form, is a series of signifiers. It’s the universal memento.
Lucy’s two longtime friends and roommates are an ace comedy team: Nadine (Phillipa Soo), who has dated and dumped so many gorgeous Russian models that she jokes about being poisoned by Vladimir Putin (Soo has a terrific scene in which she demonstrates how to give someone the heave-ho…gently), and Amanda (Molly Gordon), a law student who expresses her hostility by thinking of herself as a kind of murder junkie; her boyfriend (Nathan Dales) is a hipster who literally never says a word, the implication being that if he did he’d be dead. You could say these are characters out of a kind of “Girls” Lite, but just because they’re not deep doesn’t mean they’re not fun. “The Broken Hearts Gallery” pushes all the rom-com buttons but does it knowingly, with a spirit that embraces killer cynicism and then comes out the other side.