By Steve Erickson
Bros jokes about the hypocrisies of corporate diversity — often accurately, and with a cutting edge — while embodying some of the same problems.
Bros, directed by Nicholas Stoller. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and elsewhere around New England.
Few movies are as painfully self-conscious about their cultural status as Bros. For a light comedy, it arrived in theaters last weekend trailing an aura of self-importance. It’s the first full-fledged Hollywood rom-com starring and co-written by a gay man, Billy Eichner, and all of its cast (including the actors who play heterosexuals) are LGBTQ. Eichner’s statements about Bros have been extremely self-congratulatory, but Bros is only a breakthrough in representation if you’re unfamiliar with the history of queer cinema. It’s a much slicker child of ‘90s indie films like Jeffrey, Trick and Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss.
The cynic in me thinks that just as same-sex marriage was legalized at a point when the institution mattered less to heterosexuals, Universal was willing to take a chance on a gay rom-com because the form itself is dying out. Almost all American comedies head straight to streaming these days. The discourse around Bros has made a case for the film mattering exactly because it’s a thoroughly mainstream release, but what does its failure to find an audience in theaters last weekend mean?
While Bros was produced by Judd Apatow and suggests his influence, it plays like an extended TV show. Its greatest strength isn’t the predictable narrative, in which Bobby (Eichner) meets and falls in love with Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) despite his hesitation about the concept of romance. A podcaster recently appointed to help lead an LGBTQ+ history museum, Bobby laments the fact that he’s 40 and has never been in love on air. Yet he has a very active social life, hooking up frequently on Grindr (which leaves him feeling empty afterwards) and attending circuit parties. At once, he connects with Aaron. (Their meet-cute moment is Aaron’s failure to recognize a Mariah Carey remix; in the eyes of Bobby, he’s not gay enough because he prefers country music.) After a night out at a movie about doomed gay cowboys, played by heterosexual actors, they begin dating (which includes several scenes of group sex) but clash over Bobby’s constant cynicism. The jokes fly quick, and they’re funny and usually on target. One doesn’t know whether the jabs at Schitt’s Creek, The Power of the Dog, Brokeback Mountain and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia come from Bobby or the film itself; for someone who hates mainstream depictions of gay life, he’s never looked far beyond them.
Bros only works if you can bring yourself to have some affection for Eichner’s character, indeed his long-running persona. Billy on the Street, which premiered on the cable channel Fuse in 2011, featured him getting in the faces of pedestrians to ask about pop culture trivia. On the show, he’s abrasive and grating. Bros develops the same basic character. While Eichner may act completely differently in real life, being more than a bit much is his brand as a celebrity.
In fact, Bros works better as a character study than romance. The film’s worst scenes take place among the board of directors for the LGBTQ history museum, each one a stereotype of a different identity. Its humor flattens out. If Bobby were only seen during these moments, he might seem equally one-dimensional, but Bros understands him enough to flesh him out. While Eichner’s performance is exaggerated, Bobby ultimately comes across as a genuine person. No one else in Bros really does, not even Aaron. Aaron’s boredom with his job as a lawyer and passion for a life making chocolate instead are gags, not actual character development.
Bros tries to insulate itself against the criticism that, as progressive as it claims to be, it’s yet another film about two handsome white men. Here, it suffers from the lack of competition in its field; if Hollywood released a dozen comedies about LGBTQ people each year, it wouldn’t particularly matter that this one is about a white guy who’s succeeded in life despite being a jerk falling in love with a man who resembles a Ken doll. (Macfarlane has found his biggest audience in made-for-Hallmark Channel romance movies.) It jokes about the hypocrisies of corporate diversity – often accurately, and with a cutting edge – while embodying some of the same problems. Both Bobby and the film are self-aware enough to call his podcast “The 11th Stone” (referring to trans women of color being the first to fight back against the police at Stonewall) and show him receiving an award for “Cis Het White Man of the Year.” But it can’t imagine him winding up with a man who doesn’t look like Aaron, or breaking with rom-com conventions to decide that he has no need to fall in love to complete his life. When Bobby talks about what he’s learned from his trans and non-binary colleagues, it comes across as empty rhetoric, because the film never portrays them as part of the same community. He can barely tolerate sharing a room with them.
He’s actually been quite successful in life, making a very good living from a podcast centered around his gayness. Yet he seethes with anger. Now in his 40s, he’s never been able to overcome the slights he experienced as a teenager and young man. But his world has changed a great deal from the one in which his teachers told him he needed to tamp down his gayness. He can’t see that he constantly uses his justifiable rage at a world that told him to make himself small as an excuse to now make himself big at other people’s expense, or that more marginalized people don’t have the freedom to express their anger openly. He perceives himself as far more of a rebellious outsider than he actually is. For all its compromises, Bros captures a particular Gen. X gay personality, described in therapist Alan Downs’ book The Velvet Rage, perfectly.
Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.