8/10 I waited until the middle of the week to see Bros when it released in September to $4.8 million, a pitiful opening below even Universal’s extremely conservative expectations, and by that time I was sitting down, writer/star Billy Eichner had already called to tell me that it was my personal fault his film did so poorly. It sort of added an obligation to collect it as I reach back now, so for anyone still interested, it’s really good!
Manhattan, pre-pandemic- Bobby Lieber (Eichner), host of the prominent podcast “The Eleventh Brick at Stonewall” and curator for the in-progress National LGBTQ+ History Museum, strikes up a tentative new relationship with local estate lawyer Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane). Somewhat-together, the pair navigate expectations of the public, both the queer community and the more hostile public at large, and their own desires.
Bros’ thesis, which Eichner turns to the camera and says in as many words more than once, is that the “love is love” slogan that helped win the fight to legalize gay marriage was a lie. “Our relationships are different. Our sex lives are different,” he says. The film asserts this by inserting the authentic lifestyle of a single gay man on the verge of becoming a coupled one into a conventionally structured romcom in the most literal way possible. Bros can’t help but feel autobiographical – a guy named Billy Eichner wrote a character for himself to play named Bobby Lieber, nobody’s being coy. The story is writer/director/producer Nicholas Stoller was in charge of story structure while Eichner was in charge of making everything authentic to his life. The result, which Eichner described as the love story he wished he’d lived, is surprisingly powerful.
Before it’s a good gay romcom, Bros is an excellent romcom. It’s really funny. The jokes come out like lightning, almost all of them land, and plenty of them land like a ton of bricks. The movie got three or four belly laughs out of me. Great, witty dialogue, well-rehearsed to the point of seeming improvised even when it’s clearly been polished and fine-tuned. Nothing else the movie means would have mattered if it weren’t funny, but it really brings the noise.
Bros is also an excellent gay romcom, one that feels authentic, at least to someone very familiar with the queer community and queer media from the outside. It’s extremely “Sex and the City” – obviously, the main framing device is ripped straight from that show – with a late-‘10s dating scene, using a whole ecosystem of apps to coordinate anonymous sex, but no mention of the COVID-19 crisis I can recall. It was written before COVID and makes much more sense to be set in a pre-COVID world.
The film wields queer identities and clichés like a kitchen knife set. Inter-queer tensions are a big part how the movie generates jokes, so it’s necessarily extremely stereotypical but never mean-spirited, a lot of queer disasters pretending to be dignified queers. The danger with all romcoms, and this is much more pronounced in straight-oriented movies where the characters are limited to male and female leads and best friends, is that dominant assumptions about relationships will overwhelm and drown out the individual characters, and Bros definitely resembles those structures, both with its romantic leads and the rainbow of characters from other identities, but the human beings never disappear. Everyone feels easily clockable, yet narrow and unique. Their struggles feel both uniquely queer and universal. It’s just a beautifully drawn and realized cast of characters.
I’ve always found Eichner absolutely excruciating to watch, but he’s much more relaxed in Bros. He’s still hectic when necessary and quickly gets overbearing in those situations, but he isn’t shrieking in everyone’s face immediately, so that’s a big improvement on his usual routine.
Bros wears its politics as proudly as everything else. The erasure of historical queers the museum is meant to correct is a real issue, so much so that the museum itself was almost a real thing. The open discussion of presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump as blatantly evil feels very different coming from a screen full of people whom they’d want exterminated. There’s no fairness you can ask, no balance to strike in the presentation of these men. Even if trickle-down economics weren’t a silly fairy tale, if Reagan had his way, no one in this movie would live to see the benefit of it, and they all know that, and they all talk about him with that understanding.
Bros has several long, graphic gay sex scenes, all of which rank as the most comfortable I’ve ever been watching men have sex, and all of that is extremely political. On the one hand, the MPAA has a long, well-documented history of rating queer sex scenes much more harshly than heteronormative ones, and as a result, the prominent image of gay sex that gets put on camera is either porn or otherwise much more aggressive and meant to assert queer identity in addition to any story purpose. I’ve always found both of these very off-putting, and Bros cuts right through it with conventionally shot sex scenes that center on the character dynamics in a way that is in line with any other romcom, albeit with much more provocative activity within those shots.
Once again, Bros deftly has it both ways – the sex scenes are where Eichner’s thesis that gay sex is different is most graphically undeniable, but also where it looks the most accessible and like a conventional romcom as Lieber’s and Shepard’s relationship plays out through lovemaking.
I extend my deepest personal apologies to Eichner for not making it out to his movie as fast as he’d like, but Bros’ failure isn’t anyone’s fault. Care-free Manhattan romcoms have been dead since the ‘90s, and dead they’ll stay, not just because they mostly suck, but because the romantic optimism they drew on has completely died out – as reflected in the technological changes that Bros works into its story. This is a better post-Tinder romcom than I could have ever imagined, and maybe it could have helped revive the genre, but to do that now, it would have needed to be a post-COVID romcom instead.