Queer cinemagoers have learned to feed on scraps, to make subtext their text, to read in the dark. As those skills, honed as a facet of the rest of queer life, deteriorate in the face of increased acceptance (and the lucrative assimilation that so often follows), they are confronted by pieces of liminal queer pop. These are caught between the righteous anger at mainstream closeting and the unbridled excitement of finally getting to be the lines rather than the spaces between. This friction needs generous lubing up in Bros, the gay rom-com between two hot white men that’s identity politics are sometimes as limiting as its own genre-boxed grandiosity. There is a kind of progress when a gay romance has studio-level money behind it, but the concessions and compromises its R-rated comedy makes to the straights and squares out there in order to seek profit is dispiriting—more so because of the fresh slice-of-gay-life gags it does tout so proudly. Bros says many of the right things, often loudly and directly, as it reblazes an already well-marked trail towards normative convention.
Star, co-writer and executive producer Billy Eichner plays grouchy podcast host Bobby, whose queer history lessons get him a gig running a museum. You gotta be an influencer if you want to get anywhere in this world, right? His fame also breaks the ice in a club conversation with lawyer-hunk Aaron (Luke Macfarlane). The pair strike up an opposites-attract relationship, even if that last word scares both stereotypical commitmentphobes, and like the birds and the bees, tropes soon follow.
Aaron is deeper than he seems. Both men have a lot to learn, which can blow up in their faces when lightly confronting “we accept you, but only when you’re quiet about all that gay stuff” parents and Masc4Masc self-loathing. There’s a happily ever after awaiting, offering the safe monogamous bliss the movie itself condescendingly critiques in its jabs at Hallmark’s heteronormative gay holiday movies.
Bros is intent not only on its goal—putting historically sidelined and best-friended queer people, most of whom are sidelined and best-friended here, front-and-center in a factory-issue rom-com—but on us understanding the importance of its goal. By virtue of his job, Bobby starts multiple speeches by harkening back to antiquity, looking back millenia at all the ways queerness has been stifled, ignored, overwritten. A final sequence, the kind of musical number that happens in comedies when the writers remember that endings are hard but dancing curtain-calls are easy, climaxes in a spectacular smooch, juxtaposed against hieroglyphs of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum doing much the same 2500 years ago. It’s one of the only shots that says anything with the camera, and what it says is as clear as all of Bobby’s on-the-nose soliloquies: Don’t worry everyone, Bros made it for us all.
Like a CrossFit gay Atlas, Eichner and his film—helmed and co-written by perhaps the only (straight) director of Hollywood comedies that still has enough purchase to get them into theaters, Nicholas Stoller—shoulder immeasurable burdens. It was hard enough to sell this movie to the studio, something Bobby reenacts in a self-referential flashback, and it’s not hard to glean that one of the reasons Universal said yes was that Bros could be Important on top of Funny. But all the filmmakers had to do to make it work was what they were good at.
Bros can be funny, and it can push boundaries. Half the sex scenes involve four men; one of the others starts with a public wrestling match gone horny. Like Eichner’s other comedy, it excels at plugging subtext into an amp, pulling off hetero headphones and letting it rip. Like Eichner’s other comedy, he’s one-note, over-enunciating it at full volume. But because it feels like Bros is partially here to pat particularly adventurous straight people on the back, its honest details (the main couple does poppers and there’s no punchline; performative vocal masculinity, deliciously uncomfortable) give way to jokes, scenes and structures that are so familiar—and palatable to the multi-quadrant audience needed to recoup a studio budget—as to sap the provocations of their power.
For example, not a single dick sneaks its way on screen. It’s perhaps the most explicit evidence of some modern, unspoken Hays Code that allows a movie of this budget level to be queer but not that queer. One gag involves a hookup jerking off next to Bobby and, to his grimacing disapproval, unceremoniously shooting his load onto him. At least, that’s what’s implied. The sequence is jizz-free and shot from the chest up, with only a turn of the torso implying the messy faux pas. I don’t need to see things go full Sean Cody, but producer Judd Apatow once swore to include a penis in every one of his movies; Bros, which features half a dozen hook-ups and a pair of foursomes, barely offers butt. If Bros was on Grindr, it’d be getting blocked left and right.
The fun-poking at polyamory, tenderqueer-speak and the intersectional conflicts in the LGBTQ+ community also feel designed to reassure rather than stimulate. For a rom-com intent on making it clear that it’s making history, it also wants you to know where its limits are. That makes the giant ensemble of queer cameos—ranging from Harvey Fierstein to a very funny Guy Branum to Dot-Marie Jones to Debra Messing—feel less celebratory and more perfunctory. Stoller rushes through everyone, especially in the slogging museum scenes, so that when a character that’s not in the main couple attempts to have some emotional impact, it’s laughably ineffective.
It’s fascinating and a little sad to watch a unique voice, with excitingly specific talents, do someone else’s material. Rarely, a cover song will eclipse the original, but most feel like novelties, accessible options for an audience not yet found or homages that tell you a little about someone’s influences. The best showcase those specificities; the worst mask as many as possible under the guise of impersonation. Those in between, like Bros, are lost in the lurch. It’s not quite safe to the point of simulation, like Hallmark’s gay Christmas movies, nor boldly zigging when our conditioned minds expect zags, usurping and dismantling the canon for its own purposes. Instead, Bros is caught in the transition, though it doesn’t seem to know it. It fills its runtime with thematic back-pats, claiming that its love is not like straight love, though under the restraints of the marketplace and the creators willing to bow to it, its love stories lack the imagination or conviction to be much else.
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Writer: Billy Eichner, Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Billy Eichner, Bowen Yang, Harvey Fierstein, Luke Macfarlane, Ts Madison, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Díaz, Guy Branum, Amanda Bearse, Jim Rash
Release Date: September 30, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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