The title of Rose Troche’s film, “My Fake Boyfriend,” may be clunky, but it captures the outrageous premise of this latest gay romantic comedy. When stuntman Andrew (Keiynan Lonsdale, of “Love, Simon” fame) is stuck in a toxic relationship with a self-absorbed narcissist, his best friend Jake and his girlfriend Kelly (Dylan Sprouse and Sarah Hyland) decide the only way to break the cycle is with a white lie: the creation of a new (fake!) online boyfriend. Hijinks and an IRL romance ensue in a film that, no matter its contemporary setting, feels like a throwback to an earlier era of Drew/Sandra/Julia-led vehicles. For better and for worse.
Then again, “My Fake Boyfriend” has enough plotlines at play to make it feel like any number of movies. There is Andrew’s increasingly unmanageable lie of a boyfriend, who overnight becomes an internet sensation (having a rocking bod and a global influencer/activist/philanthropist online footprint helps with that). That alone would be enough to power an entire film, especially the way Andrew is forced to see how the guy he’d been hooked on (Marcus Rosner’s Nico, the preening star of the show Andrew works at) didn’t really see or value him the way he should have. But the screenplay, written by Luke Albright, Greg Boaldin and Joe Wanjai Ross, surrounds that titular plot line with, at times, competing storylines that pull the film into decidedly different tonal and generic territories, often stopping them to stage a physical pratfall designed to keep the laughs coming.
As Andrew tries to wish away his newfound boyfriend, “Cristiano” (named after the soccer player, naturally), he stumbles into a meet-cute with a dashing chef (Samer Salem’s Rafi). But how can he pursue a guy when the entire world thinks he’s in a relationship with an impossibly good-looking and well-meaning influencer who keeps gaining followers by the minute? At the root of such a high-concept kind of question is a valid and well-meaning query about dating as a queer man in your twenties, about the pitfalls and perils that come with making oneself vulnerable. One only wishes Andrew could navigate such a quandary with the help of some gay friends and not, as it turns out, a very hands-on straight couple whose misguided attempts at helping just keep landing Andrew in hot water.
Indeed, Jake and Kelly’s meddling ways continually find them in preposterous sitcom-like set-ups. Late-night stakeouts, dinner dates gone awry and greenscreen Cristiano blunders often make “My Fake Boyfriend” feel like a collection of skits and sketches strung together. Some are very funny and they are led by two very capable performers. These moments, after all, call Sprouse and Hyland to deploy the comedic cadences they have each developed in their careers (he in Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody”; she in the Emmy-winning ABC comedy “Modern Family”). Their scenes call for broad comedy, and both deliver, never wasting a line delivery or a pratfall to wring (or try to wring) a laugh.
Add in the increasingly unmanageable social-media firestorm Cristiano creates, the various attempts by Nico to win Andrew back (or steal Cristiano for himself), and even the bromantic comedy vibe between Andrew and Jake the film hints at throughout, and you find yourself wishing the film would have better focused its energies. Or, at least, that it had found a way to better coalesce its various parts into a more cohesive whole; its climax, for example, is so outlandish (a casket, a fake head and an all-white dress code are involved) that it almost feels like it belongs in a different movie.
That said, when it focuses on Andrew and Rafi, the movie finds its groove. Lonsdale, who already had audiences swooning for his Bram in “Love, Simon,” here gets to be the kind of hapless queer leading man that was de rigueur back in the ’90s (think “Jeffrey” or “Trick”). And he does so with aplomb. Just as his own character insists on not playing along with the Cristiano ruse, all but ignoring it as long as he can, Lonsdale’s performance feels rightly removed from the broader sensibility of the outrageous situations all around Andrew. As does Salem’s; their chemistry shines in the quieter, tender moments of the film. Whether Andrew’s making eyes at Rafi while taking his cooking class or the two are roller skating alongside one another on an impromptu date, Lonsdale and Salem are keyed into the rhythms of a very sweet romantic comedy that remains buried, sadly, for much of “My Fake Boyfriend.”