"Heartbreak Hospital" is a dreary indulgence. An unfunny satire set in the world of daytime soap opera, it isn't offensive enough to inspire passionate response but is exactly the sort of feckless endeavor that's turning "indie" into one of the dirtiest words in movies.
When the film opens, hungry young actress Neely (Chelsea Altman) is living the boho New York life with her boyfriend, Tonio (Demian Bichir), and sinking under the weight of professional rejection. She can't land any gigs, which may have something to do with the fact that she's lousy--although her acting coach repeatedly assures her that she's gifted, which may have something to do with the fact that she's paying him.
Minutes before Neely escapes to Mexico to make babies and a permanent home, she secures a part in a daytime series called "Heartbreak Hospital," whereupon various things happen, none interesting. This low-rent Ann Magnuson gets bumped up from coma victim to lead player and forgets to tend to her sulky boyfriend; meanwhile, the soap's preening stars (Diane Venora and John Shea) circle her like spitting cats, as does her neighbor (Patricia Clarkson), a fanatic who can't tell the difference between truth and television.
Based on a novel by Henry Slesar, a former advertising man who became a longtime soap opera writer, and ineptly directed by Ruedi Gerber, a German theater actor with a few documentaries and short films on his resume, "Heartbreak Hospital" lacks focus as much as it does heart. It's a measure of the film's disjointed screenplay and its confused tone (tragedy and insanity are played for awkward laughs) that Neely is also the name of Patty Duke's aspiring actress in the 1967 movie of Jacqueline Susann's kitsch masterpiece, "Valley of the Dolls." But although there are a couple of other teasing similarities between the two films--a guy named Tony, an aging diva--the allusions don't go anywhere or add up to anything, which only makes Gerber's inattention to niceties such as pacing, storytelling and the audience's pleasure all the more exasperating.