Billy Eichner is not fucking around. He is a creative, comic dynamo who has played loud, proud TV characters (in Parks & Recreation, Bob’s Burgers, the vastly underrated Difficult People), voiced animated characters (The Angry Birds Movie; Timon in the live-action Lion King) and slayed all haters via 240 characters (Twitter). He has hosted the world’s greatest man-on-the-street/full-frontal assault game show (Billy on the Street). He is the only living human being to have portrayed both Walt Whitman and Matt Drudge.
And now, the 44-year-old writer-producer-actor would like to be a movie star. Not just any funny, name-above-the-title type, either — an old-school romantic comedy leading man. And not just in any old-school romantic comedy, but a Judd Apatow-produced one with studio backing and a proper budget, just like the kind they used to regularly do in the era before multiplex fare wasn’t just wall-to-wall I.P. bonanzas leaving streamers like Netflix to pick up the slack. One that, against the odds, spoke directly to what Eichner had experienced as gay man living in New York. He wanted to make and star in a love story that aimed to be nothing less than the single most unabashed, honest, hilarious LGBTQ+ romantic comedy of all time.
Note those three adjectives above — they are the metrics by which Bros, the movie that Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller co-wrote, will live and die by. It’s definitely the most unabashedly gay romantic comedy to be released by a major Hollywood studio (Universal), complete with Grindr quickies, hot male-on-male action (and mishaps), Provincetown montages, erotic roughhousing, sub-subcultural in-jokes, and the politics of dealing with an unwanted, random member of a foursome. It goes out of its way to be 100-percent honest about presenting that world to everybody, regardless of where they land on the Kinsey scale, and regardless of whether that means airing some dirty laundry in the process. And it’s genuinely hilarious precisely because it nails those first two qualities — nothing has been sanded down or shoved into a closet for the benefit of mainstream audiences. Eichner is unafraid to walk a tightrope between representation and irreverence, affection and agitation, when it comes to cracking open gay life in the name of cracking people up. Funny is funny. Humor mined from real life makes you laugh because it feels not just ridiculous but real, however, and that’s what he’s given us.
His character, a podcaster and author named Bobby, is nothing if not a realist. The last thing he wants is an honest-to-Cher committed, monogamous relationship. “I don’t trust gay men,” he tells his close-knit group of friends. “I am one, which is why I don’t trust them.” He’s happy with the occasional casual hook-up and besides, his dream of opening a museum dedicated to LGBTQ+ history is finally coming true. When he meets Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) at a club one night, Billy thinks he’s just another boring, dumb, albeit extremely hot meathead. It turns out the guy is a lawyer, and that he thinks Billy is a bit of an elitist. They flirt. They bicker. There’s a spark there. You can already tell you’re witnessing the beginning of a classic When-Harry-Met-Harry romance.
So they exchange numbers. Eventually, they text. A date is made just to hang out — neither of them are into the “relationship” thing. Still, the evening ends with Aaron and Bobby kissing and gazing soulfully into each other’s eyes in a tight two-person close-up, before Bobby has to say goodbye. As he leaves, we switch to a medium shot that reveals two other hot dudes are simultaneously going down on Aaron as well. Look, if you want something less in your face, go watch Hallmark.
That cable channel and its attempts to cater to the LGBTQ+ demographic is a running joke throughout the movie (advertisements abound for the “Hallheart” network’s bisexual holiday special Christmas With Either and the polyamorous A Holly, Poly Christmas). It’s also where a lot of folks might know the movie’s stoic jock-y dream guy as well, given that Macfarlane has starred in his fair share of Hallmark classics, one of several gloriously subversive touches Bros is eager and willing to deploy. It also throws jabs at a certain type of performative hypermasculinity, in which “Hey, bro, what’s up?” is the ultimate one-size-fits-all come-on and Bobby picks a guy up at the gym by adopting a stereotypical “dude” voice. Not that our hero doesn’t also find that a turn-on — the funniest set piece is a sex scene that seems to ping between horny Roman wrestling match and old-school slapstick. And should you think that Bowen Yang’s cameo as a rich, mercurial TV producer in P-town isn’t a dig at a real-life celebrity, we’d advise you to bone up on your crime and horror stories, American-style.
But Eichner wants to have his rom-com cake and critique it too; the movies adheres to a Nora Ephron template but filters it through a Mattachine Society rewrite. You get the tender moments you associate with the genre in addition to some outrageous, OMG sequences straight outta the Apatow raunch-com playbook, as Aaron and Bobby negotiate the ins and outs of a relationship that seems to get more and more serious. That means possibly getting a broken heart, and Bros isn’t afraid to go there, either. Obstacles like family and jealousy and insecurity will interrupt their path to romantic bliss, and a third-act reconciliation which may or may not involve a Garth Brooks-style musical number and a public declaration of amore is more or less inevitable. We know this because we’ve been conditioned to accept and expect this, just not involving characters like these. The film knows this as well, which is why it always manages to double down on the classic rom-com tropes even when it seems like it’s going to undermine them. ‘Don’t I deserve to have a romantic comedy that represents my bad-date decisions and vulnerabilities and quirks and passions and connections?’ you can hear Eichner saying. Don’t we all deserve that?
In the end, Bros delivers on that promise, even if it occasionally dips and swoops and sags in places that you wish it didn’t. There are gags that inspire belly laughs, and several brilliant bon mots (bitching about the queer-culture gap between generations, Bobby laments that “we got AIDS, they got Glee“), and some bathos as well. There is also a monologue Eichner delivers, about being told that he was “too gay” for show business and wondering why “the world didn’t catch up fast enough” for his parents to see his success, that feels so achingly personal that you can feel yourself tearing up just listening to it. You can’t say that he didn’t have more things on his mind than just shifting a cinematic paradigm.
But the writer-star has also given us a love letter to a community that, he suggests, sometimes drives its members crazy but always has each other’s backs. It’s not just that every letter in the LGBTQ+ abbreviation gets representation onscreen, notably in the scenes featuring the museum’s curators and administrators; he’s also made sure that every major and supporting character, even the straight ones, were played by queer actors. (“I’m not saying a straight actor should never play gay,” Eichner said to Variety. “It’s about correcting a very extreme imbalance.”)
Giving Aaron a tour of the not-yet-opened history museum after a fundraiser, Bobby shows him an exhibit filled with pioneers, groundbreakers, activists, martyrs — it doubles as both a roll call and a history lesson for the audience. Bros may be “just” a romantic comedy, but it also lets you see that what Eichner is doing is, in its own way, as part of a continuum. He wanted to make a gay rom-com. It isn’t a huge leap, however, to say that he’s both entertaining a mass audience and leaving his own mark on a long, storied history of fighting to be seen and heard — to tell stories that have been dismissed or neglected or suppressed. Mission accomplished.