Funny, sweet and occasionally pointed, Nicholas Stoller’s Bros (cowritten by star Billy Eichner) is a gay rom-com with a personality crisis. Though it makes lots of jokes at the expense of corporate types who would co-opt gay culture for prestige or water it down for straight consumption, it slowly reveals itself to be almost exactly like every guy-girl love story that has made money in the last thirty years. Described as satire in TIFF materials and elsewhere, it’s anything but. Forget movies that want to squeeze non-straight love into a heteronormative mode: Eichner wants his love story to be even more formula-bound — to be Ephronormative.
That will be exactly what many multiplex-goers want, and what many of the performer’s followers expect: Fans of the riotous Billy on the Street and the aptly named Difficult People might estimate that his love/hate relationship with trashy pop culture is about 85% love, 15% self-loathing-fueled scorn. And certainly the dearth of mainstream/studio gay rom-coms makes one want to embrace Bros for the representational significance alone. But was it wrong to hope for something a little stranger?
The Bottom Line
Entertaining, but less original than it initially seems.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Release date: September 30 (Universal Pictures)
Cast: Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Guy Branum, Ryan Faucett, Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Dot-Marie Jones
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Screenwriters: Billy Eichner, Nicholas Stoller
1 hour 55 minutes
Eichner (who, let’s get it out of the way, proves totally equipped to be a feature’s co-leading man) plays Bobby, a podcaster with a passion for gay history. Early on he gets his dream job, as the first director of a new museum of LGBTQ+ culture. His board meetings (the closest the film gets to satire, though they really aren’t that) are a mild nightmare of identity-politics squabbling, with everyone worried that their part of this story won’t get the emphasis it deserves.
Meanwhile, the emotionally unavailable Bobby cobbles together a bachelor’s life he tells himself is balanced: anonymous sex with men he doesn’t want to talk to, plus happy times with good friends he’d never sleep with. Standing in a club full of writhing young men, he and his pal Henry (Guy Branum), almost the only people at the event with shirts on, complain about how dumb the people around them are. Then they see Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), a ripped, shirtless jock in a ball cap, who comes over to flirt but keeps disappearing every time Bobby seems to be getting somewhere.
Aaron’s outlook on romance mirrors Bobby’s. But after a few “this isn’t a date” encounters, including one that winds up as an awkward foursome, the two have a fight that turns hot and eventually leads to actual tenderness. The second or third song that could’ve been in When Harry Met Sally plays quietly in the background, and you know a non-ironic montage involving Central Park and Christmas trees isn’t far off. (It doesn’t stop at needle-drops: Bros composer Marc Shaiman arranged music for When Harry Met Sally as well.)
Banter between the two men stays very funny in the first half, with Bobby taking potshots at Aaron’s meathead tastes in music, movies and men. But of course, Aaron’s attraction to gym rats makes the tall but unbulky Bobby insecure. And he acts out, ruining his first day with Aaron’s visiting parents by turning their tourist visit into a nonstop lecture on gay history.
Eager to explain the chip on his shoulder that’s about to wreck this relationship, the screenplay now does a lot more telling than showing. One long, emotional monologue near the beach in Provincetown (right after an amusing Bowen Yang cameo) gets the job done, showing that Eichner can act and airing a lifetime’s worth of Bobby’s resentment over being told he was too “flamboyant” to succeed. But a speechy tendency crops up several other places as well, sounding especially off-key given that the writers have already proven they can get many of these points across while still being funny.
For a movie so frank (but not gratuitously so) about man-man, man-man-man and man-man-man-man sex, it’s peculiar that Stoller’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall had more penises in it than this film. Presumably, some execs were giving notes about exactly how gay a movie can be and still open on 3,000 screens. Maybe the same execs who inspired mockery at the film’s beginning.
But the suits needn’t have worried. Bros is so steeped in mainstream pop culture, with its run-to-him epiphanies and utterly implausible public declarations of love, that it was never going to alienate anybody but homophobes. Bobby is right to complain that “love is love” is a bogus PR slogan for gay acceptance; it’s something nobody who’s been in love more than once should say with a straight (sorry) face. But when it comes to rom-coms, a love story is a love story. They’re nearly all the same, nearly all phony, even when their phoniness is saying something true or when they have enough charm that you spend your life trying to believe them.