‘Bros’ does exactly what it sets out to do, for better and for worse

REVIEW: Billy Eichner’s blockbuster gay rom-com is hilarious, but misses out trying to please everyone

The marketing for Billy Eichner’s new film Bros has been as in-your-face loud as Eichner’s trademark Billy on the Street videos. Bus stops, theatre ads and Eichner’s slew of talk show appearances in recent months and more have touted the film as revolutionary, and notably as “the first queer rom-com …” But there’s always an asterisk: “… from a major studio.”

That declaration—and that asterisk—hang heavy over how Bros, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, will be received by queer folks. Obviously, it’s not the first rom-com ever to feature queer people. Whether you’re talking about the classics like But I’m A Cheerleader or more recent fare like Netflix’s Single All The Way, there has been queer representation in the rom-com space for decades. And of course, Bros isn’t even the first queer rom-com of 2022: Joel Kim Booster’s effervescent Fire Island took Pride and Predjudice and reworked it for millennial party gays with a depth of specificity and heart. 

But Bros—which comes with the budget and backing of Universal Studios, alongside a production credit from heterosexual comedy god Judd Apatow—is a different beast. Unlike those scrappy upstarts, Bros has money, honey and a proven Hollywood comedy director in Nick Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). In many ways, you could describe the film as both a straight comedy for the gays and a gay comedy for the straights. 

The set-up is classic rom-com: Bobby (Eichner) is a successful podcaster and museum curator who’s afraid of commitment. Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) is a hunky and similarly commitment-phobic lawyer who wishes he were a chocolatier. They meet at a party, flirty jabs turn into actual flirting and you know how it goes from there. There are all the trappings of heterosexual rom-coms, from the wisecracking gay best friend (Guy Branum)—because even the gay rom-com has a gay best friend—to a declaration of love through song. 

But does it all work? On the comedy side of the rom-com, Bros is a resounding success. In Eichner and Stoller’s script, the jokes are rapid-fire one after another and come with a specificity that felt like it was workshopped by all of your funniest gay friends. There are some true laugh-out-loud moments no matter your lived identity or experience. Highlights include an appearance by SNL breakout Bowen Yang involving a “traumacoaster” and the truly iconic one-liner dropped by Bobby trying to describe millennial queers: “We had AIDS—they had Glee.” 

But where Bros struggles is in the weight of expectations set upon it as this “groundbreaking” first big-budget queer rom-com, and its attempt to represent everyone in that flag-planting. 

 

Bobby’s roster of diverse friends seem to touch on every letter of the acronym and then some. A conversation at a restaurant early in the film touches on a series of queer topics that feels like a checklist for coverage at an LGBTQ2S+ magazine, from a couple introducing a third (played by Symone from Drag Race, who, frankly, should be in the movie more) into their relationship to another looking to conceive. While it’s refreshing to see these experiences familiar to queer folks and our circles reflected in a big movie like this, their early scene forbodes the film’s breathless, urgent need to be everything for everyone in the queer community, without necessarily giving anyone enough space—including its central couple, who feel lost in the fray.

This is extrapolated further in the scenes with Bobby’s fellow board members at the LGBTQ history museuem. The group feels like an LGBTQ2S+ focus group for how much they embody each specific identity and all of their associated stereotypes. There’s a bisexual (Jim Rash) who only talks about how bisexuals are erased, and a lesbian (Dot-Marie Jones) whose entire character is about how competent lesbians are. And while these jokes continue to be funny, it feels like so much time is given to simply pointing out the presence of these varied queer folks. Only TS Madison and Miss Lawrence rise above the noise, making the most of their very limited lines—in the after-screening Q&A, Madison stressed that she only had “like, six lines”—to create characters that felt whole.

This exhausting checklisting takes away from the interesting and real opportunity Bros presents to examine toxic masculinity in gay relationships, something the film brushes against, but never takes the time to interrogate within its central relationship. Bobby and Aaron are both conventionally attractive cis white men who struggle with different aspects of dating and identity. Bobby, a neurotic embodiment of gay Twitter quips, is desperate to be liked, and lashes out at people around him to get away from that. Aaron retreats into toxic masculinity—the film is called Bros for a reason—including self-administered testosterone shots and criticizing Bobby for being “too much.” Both characters point these things out about each other, but little is done to actually get to the root of where these attitudes come from or why they can be an issue in relationships. 

Bros will forever be compared to Fire Island, simply for their proximity of release. And while Bros is an unequivocally funnier and more joke-dense film, Fire Island does the sort of specific examination of gay relationships, wealth, body image and masculinity that Bros lacks. Fire Island doesn’t need Margaret Cho quipping constantly about building IKEA furniture or whatever—its story isn’t about that and doesn’t need to be. 

Following Bros’ TIFF premiere, the cast and crew were asked by an audience member why, when given the opportunity to make the first major studio queer rom-com, they chose to centre it on middle-aged cis white gay men. Earlier, Eichner had described the genesis of the film as actually coming from Stoller approaching him to co-write a gay rom-com. Before Eichner or Stoller could speak, TS Madison stepped in.

“Listen, honey, we all know it takes folks to get us in the door to do what we do, okay? When Bros 2 comes out, I’m going to have way more lines than I had in this one. And you’re going to see all types of colour all up in the motherfucker,” she said.

I hope that Bros makes millions of dollars and leads to studios like Universal taking big chances on people like Madison and other brilliant filmmakers and actors who aren’t successful cis white gay men. I hope that this big-budget gay rom-com paves the way for future projects that don’t feel like they need to please everyone, and are given space to breathe, free of the expectations that come from being “the first.” 

Until then, go see Bros. It is the first of its kind, and it’s fucking funny. That should be reason enough to let these big studios know that it definitely shouldn’t be the last.

 Bros will release in North American theatres Sept. 30.

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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Culture, TV & Film, Review, Toronto, Comedy

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