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Bros is a landmark film. Not only for being the first gay rom-com produced and distributed by a major American studio (Universal), but for being a perfectly formulaic gay rom-com that starts with a bawdy bang and then becomes more standard-issue (and preachy) as it nears the finish line.
In both cases, that can be viewed as progress, and better still, Nicholas Stoller and Billy Eichner’s comedy—debuting at this year’s Toronto Film Festival before premiering in theaters on September 30—has more going for it than its groundbreaking pedigree. Namely, it has a steady stream of laughs, most of them courtesy of its headliner, who employs his trademark grumpy-catty-hostile persona for a snarky and sermon-y saga about finding yourself and, in the process, your ideal (if unlikely) complementary half.
In his first big lead role following a decade of hosting the hilarious Billy on the Street series and stealing scenes on the likes of Parks and Recreation, Eichner is Bobby Lieber, a successful NYC podcaster who’s also spearheading the creation of the city’s maiden LGBTQ+ history museum. Bobby wants to use this platform to resurrect the marginalized stories from his community that have been erased by mainstream forces, including—most controversially—that of Abraham Lincoln, whom Bobby aims to out in a grand exhibit, much to his lesbian, bisexual and trans coworkers’ consternation.
Stepping on people’s toes isn’t Bobby’s concern, however; whether broadcasting his own disinterest in love and romance or chatting about his grim and unsatisfying Grindr encounters, he’s brash, uninhibited, and more than a bit abrasive. In other words, he’s an ever-so-slightly fictionalized version of Eichner, in a manner akin to Adam Sandler in Funny People, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, and Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island—all of which, like Bros, were produced by Judd Apatow.
Eichner and director Stoller’s script is steeped in its star’s experiences as a single 40-year-old commitment-phobe navigating a diverse gay Manhattan, marked by dinner parties with a couple that’s happy to announce they’re now in a “throuple,” and nights out at a club where just about everyone other than Bobby is a shirtless, ripped hunk. It’s at one of those venues that Bobby locks eyes with, and is introduced to, Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), a strikingly handsome and buff estate lawyer whom Bobby’s friend describes as “boring.”
Given Bobby’s compulsive habit of saying exactly what’s on his mind, he wastes no time calling Aaron boring to his face, although more surprising is the fact that the two quickly strike up a connection—only for Aaron to repeatedly vanish like some sort of underwear-model variation of Batman. Nonetheless, they eventually begin texting and hooking up, despite their odd-couple dynamic: Aaron is a rugged alpha who’s into sports, The Hangover and Garth Brooks, and Bobby is a theatrical loudmouthed activist who can’t stay silent for two seconds.
Eichner’s schtick is of a love-it-or-hate-it variety, and much of how Bros plays depends on one’s tolerance for his “angry, judgmental” character. That said, Stoller’s comedy underlines that Bobby’s idiosyncratic loud-and-proud attitude—as well as his more feminine speech and behavior, especially compared to the CrossFit-obsessed, testosterone-injecting Aaron—is something for which he should make no apologies.
The film has Bobby periodically expound on the need for LGBTQ+ voices to be heard and, just as crucially, for them to not be silenced by requests to “tone down” their flamboyance for straight compatriots. Those moments are true to the story at hand, yet they’re not always gracefully woven into the action proper, highlighted by a creaky Bobby beach monologue about the discrimination he’s faced, and fought against, since childhood.
Bros embraces its queerness while explaining why doing that is important, and if the latter can occasionally make the film feel like an ABC Afterschool Special, it’s consistently sharp when mining Bobby’s rollercoaster existence juggling one-night stands, professional headaches and pesky newfound emotions that might just be—spoiler alert!—love.
Bobby can’t quite grasp why a guy like Aaron is interested in him, and that’s understandable; the duo’s yin-yang chemistry is never wholly believable, this despite Macfarlane’s charmingly low-key performance as a juicehead who’s attracted to Bobby for his intelligence, success and lack of reserve. Still, they make a cute pair, and their absurd ups and downs are all the funnier for being attuned to the struggles of 21st-century gay men, be they with regards to identity and body-image issues, the push-pull between spontaneous trysts and long-term commitment, or the trickiness of dealing with parents—the last of which, during a dinner out with Aaron’s visiting mom and dad, serves as the tale’s de facto plot crisis.
Throughout, Bobby’s quips are the engine that keeps Bros running, and they’re so spiky and on-target that it’s easy to overlook the material’s hackneyed genre maneuvers. Two separate run-ins with Will & Grace vet Debra Messing are particularly chuckleworthy, as are Bobby’s Queer Eye audition and an extended riff on same-sex cowboy movies.
“Not all gay people are nice!” screams Bobby at film’s outset, and Eichner and Stoller’s feature is best when it leans into its protagonist’s aggressive, argumentative energy—and, also, the doubt and self-loathing that lurks beneath his coarse exterior. When Bobby gets increasingly annoyed at a Grindr request for an ass pic, subsequently cuts himself shaving his rear end for said snapshot, and then gets rejected for his underwhelming derriere, Eichner taps into a simultaneously mad-and-morose vein that proves to be the proceedings’ strongest suit.
References to Barbra Streisand, Cher, Mariah Carey and Hallmark Christmas movies—the last of which are mocked for pandering to queer audiences—are all predictable parts of the package, and so too is a threat to Bobby and Aaron’s blossoming amour in the figure of Aaron’s former hockey teammate.
Bros walks its talk about wanting to celebrate the authentic realities of LGBTQ+ Americans in all their messy, contradictory glory, and though it does that with a few too many italicized speeches about its intentions, its sincerity ultimately wins out. Moreover, Eichner and Stoller’s decision to fashion their gay rom-com in a visually, narratively and thematically familiar mold has the effect of filtering the radical through the traditional (a notion underscored by its country-music finale).
In the end, what makes Bros so noteworthy is that it treats Bobby as just another screwy rom-com hero, unsure of himself and secretly desperate for the connection he believes he doesn’t need. It’s an amusing act of cinematic normalization, pioneering precisely because it’s so conventional.