Is it progress to say that gay rom-coms can be as silly and stupid as straight ones? That’s the dilemma one encounters when watching My Fake Boyfriend, a superficial entry into the world of romantic comedy that has no business being as enjoyable as it is. The thin material, stretched even thinner by an overabundance of jarring needle drops and conspicuous product placement, is saved by its trio of lead actors … but only just barely.
The film is the latest release from Buzzfeed Studios, and it feels exactly like one of those pop culture lists that website churns out every 10 minutes: Short, peppy, and disposable, leaving you with a feeling of no knowledge gained and some time consumed, albeit pleasurably. It seems designed for viewers with nothing better to do, which is the highest praise one can give a film like this.
My Fake Boyfriend‘s setup is goofy but promising: After trying unsuccessfully to move on from his vain soap opera actor boyfriend, Andrew (Keiynan Lonsdale) enlists the aid of his best friend, Jake (Dylan Sprouse), and Jake’s girlfriend, Kelly (Sarah Hyland), to disentangle himself from his emotionally abusive ex, Nico. After witnessing Andrew’s botched attempts at dating, Jake comes up with an idea: Why not create a fake online boyfriend to make Nico jealous and thus unwilling to meddle in his ex’s life to boost his ego? Armed with too much time and graphic design skills, Jake conjures up Cristiano, an impossibly good-looking online boyfriend who runs with the bulls in Pamplona, skydives for fun, and fulfills every need Andrew desires.
It’s no spoiler to state that the scheme works .. .for awhile. Complications ensue when Andrew meets an attractive chef, Rafi, and begins to fall in love for real, while Jake develops an unhealthy obsession with Cristiano, who symbolizes everything he wishes he could be and isn’t. Cristiano’s growing worldwide popularity, combined with Nico’s mounting suspicion that his ex’s new lover is too good to be true, all come to a head in a third act that is both predictable and exhausting to endure. The requisite coda tying up all the loose ends does its best to get things back on track, and for the most part, it works.
A key element to the film’s charm is the lead actors, who elevate the material that could have been rendered unwatchable by less charismatic performers. As Andrew, Lonsdale possesses a vulnerability and honesty rare in romantic comedy leads, gay or straight. You’re invested in his emotions, even if they are being manipulated by a plot that, at times, strains creditability. Sprouse’s Jake could’ve been a slacker bro like Seth Rogen in Knocked Up or Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but instead he’s almost as fragile as Andrew. Jake’s infatuation with Cristiano isn’t mined for just comedy; there’s real pathos there, and it’s to the film’s credit that it gives Sprouse enough space to show it.
As Jake’s girlfriend, Hyland shows the crack comic timing she developed in the later seasons of Modern Family. With her kewpie doll face and saucer eyes, she has the look and feel of a 1930s screwball comedienne, and she does as much as she can with her somewhat limited role. All three actors have a laid-back, lived-in vibe that sells their characters’ intimate, good-natured friendship. As long as one or more of them are onscreen, the film hums along nicely.
Actors can only do so much though, and it’s in other areas, specifically the uneven direction and paper-thin script, where My Fake Boyfriend is a drag. The director, Rose Troche, showed a knack for modern screwball comedy with the farce Bedrooms & Hallways two decades ago, and that peeks through in some sequences in My Fake Boyfriend, particularly in the creation of Cristiano in the first act. Yet there are other times, especially in the drawn-out climax that involves a preposterously staged funeral, where the direction feels flat and uninspired and the shopworn script shows all of its clichés.
It also doesn’t help that the film asks the audience to believe it’s set in New York City when its clearly not. With its spacious apartments and nearly empty restaurants, My Fake Boyfriend‘s Big Apple is unconvincing, and while that may seem like a minor quibble, it does break the delicate spell the film weaves (it was shot in Ontario).
Stars are stars for a reason, and some have appeal just by sheer magnetism alone. Lonsdale, Sprouse, and Hyland make this film watchable, and sell its absurd premise. In a time when romantic comedies are struggling to survive, and LGBT ones are still rare to come by, My Fake Boyfriend is passable entertainment graded on a curve. Just don’t concentrate too much on its many flaws and you should be good.