You can put a fresh coat of paint on an old house and two things will happen: It will look pretty good and it’ll still be an old house. That about sums up “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” a spry, smartly written bit of fluff that gradually reveals its formula bones. The movie’s essentially a Netflix rom-com — think “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” — that somehow escaped to movie theaters.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, at least for the bulk of the movie’s running time. A tart, eager-to-please screenplay by first-time director Natalie Krinsky and a cast skilled at verbal badminton hook a viewer from the start, and “Gallery” especially stands as a welcome showcase for Geraldine Viswanathan, a wry supporting presence in movies like “Bad Education” and “Blockers” and the star of the wonderful little indie “Hala.”
Viswanathan plays Lucy, a Brooklyn art gallery assistant reeling from a breakup with her most recent beau (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an arrogant metrosexual of a work colleague, and she’s holding on to mementos of their relationship like a heartsore hoarder. In fact, her bedroom is crammed with keepsakes of past boyfriends — what you and I and her roommates would call crap. “Are you afraid you won’t remember the guys you dated?” someone asks Lucy, and it’s a valid point.
Valid enough that when Lucy pins the ex’s necktie on a piece of board as an impromptu art project, others start chipping in their own sad tchotchkes, and an idea is born: a “broken hearts gallery” for the lovelorn to purge their souls and shelves of the detritus of failed romances.
Krinsky earned her writer’s stripes on two seasons of TV’s “Gossip Girl,” and it shows in the brittle topical brilliantine of her script’s zingers; at times “The Broken Hearts Gallery” plays like a screwball comedy with vibrator jokes tossed in. Again, not a bad thing. But the early appearance of a handsome, modest fellow named Nick (Dacre Montgomery, the skeevy lifeguard from “Stranger Things” all cleaned up) serves notice that the film will travel along well-worn ruts of romantic complications and resolution. The problem isn’t that Nick’s a stock character. It’s that he’s just kind of dull.
The same can’t be said of Lucy’s roommates, the brutally cynical Amanda (Molly Gordon from “Booksmart”) and the caddish lesbian Nadine (Phillipa Soo, the Eliza of “Hamilton” taking a needed break from sainthood). Or Lucy’s gallery boss (Bernadette Peters, dropping in like a visiting Manhattan empress). Everyone in this movie talks fast and funny except for Amanda’s co-worker Harvard (Ego Nwodim, as underused here as she was on “SNL”) and Amanda’s boyfriend (Nathan Dales), who doesn’t speak at all.
With all that badinage, “The Broken Hearts Gallery” spins and glitters like a disco ball, and it’s fine until you notice the missing bits of mirror. The predictable secret Nick is hiding as he pours sweat and cash into his dream project of a boutique hotel. The ex who suddenly returns to confuse the heroine’s heart. A few jokes that land not cleverly but callously. The fact that everyone here lives in fantastic Brooklyn apartments but no one appears to have an income. And finally, inevitably, the embarrassing public confession of true love that represents the movie’s final caving into “Love Actually” cliché. You can buy it if you want to, and there’s no denying that Viswanathan and friends sell it with charm. But when it’s all over, you may realize you’ve bought a very old house indeed.
THE BROKEN HEARTS GALLERY
Written and directed by Natalie Krinsky. Starring Geraldine Viswanathan, Dacre Montgomery, Molly Gordon, Phillipa Soo, Bernadette Peters. At Boston theaters and suburbs. 108 minutes. PG-13 (sexual content throughout and some crude references, strong language, drug references).