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Bobby (Billy Eichner) stands on a parade float decorated with a rainbow balloon arch and rainbow streamers as he waves to the crowd in his “LGBTQ History” t-shirt Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures

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Bros’ perfectly tuned romantic comedy buckles under the weight of the gay rom-com milestone

Billy Eichner’s star vehicle is great when it’s not reaching for importance

There’s been a lot of Making History bandied about in the marketing onslaught leading up to the premiere of Bros, the new film written by and starring Billy Eichner. It’s “the first gay romantic comedy from a major studio featuring an entirely LGBTQ principal cast,” with Eichner being touted as “the first openly gay man to write and star in a major studio film.” The oddly self-serious campaign, the kind of buzzy heralding of importance that would typically accompany an award-bait prestige drama, seems to undercut the simple revolutionary act of just making another studio rom-com, this time centered on two dudes in love.

Sitting down and watching the film, however, it’s clear this tension between the important and the conventional is the defining conflict of the film. For all its virtues, Bros is a bit of a frustrating watch, a lovely Nora Ephron-esque charmer buried somewhere underneath the self-imposed burden of representing “5,000 years of queer love stories,” a tug-of-war between the micro and macro that nearly squanders its sunny central romance with an attempt (however noble) to be all things to all people.

The plot concerns Bobby Lieber (Eichner), a queer podcaster and curator of New York City’s first LGBTQ history museum. Bobby is opinionated and proudly single, but his defenses melt away when he meets Aaron (Hallmark movie mainstay Luke Macfarlane), a macho-bro estate lawyer who’s as emotionally impenetrable as he is a total dreamboat. Their meet-cute, amidst a swirling vortex of vogueing club gays, feels like the proper 21st-century queer version of a NYC love story. Add in a score by Marc Shaiman and a bounty of Nat King Cole needle-drops, and you’d think this Gay When Harry Met Sally would be off and running. But Bros has a lot else on its mind.

Bobby (Billy Eichner) and Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) lay naked under the covers talking in bed in a warmly lit room with exposed brick behind them Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures

Those “5,000 years of queer love stories” are referenced right from the get-go, and the B-plot concerning the opening of Bobby’s museum feels at first a sly way of transforming this mainstream studio comedy into a backdoor queer history lesson. That’s all well and good, but while Eichner deserves credit for holding space for other queer narratives than his own cis-white experience, the execution here comes off as mostly perfunctory. His museum co-workers are little more than ciphers, an LGBTQ United Nations with representatives trans, lesbian, nonbinary, and bisexual. The moments where they sit around a conference table and rotely espouse queer talking points feel as dry and uninspired as if the Senate sequences from the Star Wars prequels took place in an echo chamber of gay stereotypes.

Eichner only has two hours, after all, and while he reaches for Nora Ephron-levels of dimension, Bros’ script is often drawn to make his characters mouthpieces for all the issues he feels he needs to address, even at the expense of his own. Despite the actor’s volatile watchability, Bobby emerges less as a real person than a walking Twitter rant of everything that’s wrong with gay culture. That includes, but is not limited to: straight actors playing gay people; the comedic use of “the F slur”; the film industry’s capitalization on queer trauma; and the problematic nature of Bohemian Rhapsody being about a gay icon in a straight relationship. Frustrating stuff, all, but made more frustrating by the fact that it’s occupying such significant space in a movie that’s supposed to be those issues’ antidote.

Eichner’s best when his ravings are instigated by more organic means. That can mean pushing his way through a crowd of clubgoers (“THEY WON’T STOP VOGUEING!”) or finding himself incapable of not having the last word when Aaron’s mother, an elementary school teacher, says second graders are too young to learn about queer history. He’s also, as it turns out, a fairly tender romantic lead with a lovely singing voice, delivering an eleventh-hour musical performance that feels like an instant rom-com classic, even if its meaning (some sort of convoluted subversion of Lin-Manuel’s “Love is love is love is love” speech, about how “love is not actually love”) remains murky at best.

But the movie belongs to Luke Macfarlane, with one of the year’s most unexpectedly poignant performances. It’s one of those perfect syntheses of actor and role, a massive career breakout that feels exciting to celebrate. You can easily imagine the one-note meathead Aaron could be, but Macfarlane really plays the pathos of this guy who’s lived a life straddling his privilege as a straight-passing masculine gay man with his desire to feel less like an outsider to gay culture. He’s easily the most complete and compelling character in the cast, and his losses and victories are the emotional high points of a film that’s at its best when it’s playing out the classic rom-com beats from a gay perspective.

Bobby (Billy Eichner) commands the Thanksgiving dinner table with Peter (Peter Kim), Paul (Justin Covington), Tina (Monica Raymund), Edgar (Guillermo Díaz), Tom (D’Lo), Lucas (Becca Blackwell), Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), Marty (Symone) and Henry (Guy Branum) all seated around him Image: Universal Pictures

When Bobby and Aaron are sharing the screen, falling in and out of love as the seasons change in New York City, Bros feels ready to sit comfortably on the shelf with the genre’s best. The sex scenes are steamy, frank, refreshingly playful, and (in one instance, thanks to the participation of an eager interloper named Steve) quite funny. And if overall, the film lacks the consistently laugh-out-loud high points of director Nicholas Stoller’s earlier work like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, his unerring desire to capture the most compassionate version of his characters makes for an experience that, despite its flaws, slaps a smile on your face that doesn’t let up.

Despite my frustrations and quibbles, Eichner sticks the landing with a finale that feels as swoony and romantic as Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s New Year’s Eve reconciliation. That he does so against the backdrop of the opening of Bobby’s LGBTQ museum feels like the first time the film’s disparate threads and dangling participles congeal into a cohesive whole. It’s a satisfying ending, and one that reveals Eichner’s ultimate framing of this film as a long-awaited introduction from queer culture to mainstream cinema, a Gay Rey handing off a rainbow-colored lightsaber to Luke Skywalker.

In that context, it’s hard to fault Eichner for treating this “first major studio gay rom-com” with the utmost level of responsibility. While Bros often feels overstuffed with ideas, a treatise on Why Gay People Deserve To Be in a Rom-Com rather than just a really good rom-com with gay people, it also feels exactly in line with Bobby’s-slash-Billy’s chief goal: “I wanted to write about my world, my life, my friends.”

After all, a movie can’t really be all things to all people, even if it’s understandable for Billy to try. Over 5,000 years of queer love stories, and this is the first one with the Universal logo in front of it. As Bobby says at the museum opening, “It feels like we’re just starting to get to know one another.” Bros was a worthwhile intro. Now it’s time for the next step.

Bros opens in theaters on Sept. 30.