Going mainstream is inherently uncool. You have an edge when you’re an outsider, hard-won oddities that you wear proudly, and an attitude that says you don’t care what others think. Entering the mainstream means shaving that away, and while that makes you less prickly to the world at large there’s danger in losing it, especially when your acceptance within the mainstream is on the knife’s edge of being lost.
Bros is well aware of its position as a mainstream romantic comedy, groundbreaking in that it’s the first major studio rom-com about gay men while otherwise proudly staying within genre lines. The publicity tour is playing up the firsts but the film itself is a bit sheepish and angry about the milestone. There’s hardly a better way to play the situation; many queer people would roll their eyes at white, cis gays traipsing around as the conquering heroes, and yet the pain of exclusion is a deeply felt wound that deserves to be thrown off joyously.
So star and co-writer Billy Eichner has his LGBTQ+ history loving character repeatedly specify that the first brick at Stonewall was not thrown by someone like him. I expect most people will know the historical event, but will they pick up on the inter-community anxiety being expressed? It doesn’t really matter. It’s a throwaway joke whose meaning is expressed more directly later on, and that’s the general track Bros takes: include things for those in the know but circle back so everyone can keep up. Break ground but don’t lose anyone.
Much of its broad appeal comes from getting the genre right, i.e. setting up a winning couple that feels meant for each other. Eichner’s Bobby and Luke Macfarlane’s Aaron are two middle aged dudes who’ve spent their lives avoiding romance, preferring instead quick hookups and an endless string of parties. It’s at a launch event that they catch each other’s eye from across the dance floor. Their inexperience with real dating leads to much of the film’s comedic fumbling, but underneath it all is a clearly distinguishable connection, one that drives each man to abandon familiarity and plunge into the unknown.
The usual disastrous meetings with parents and white knuckle decisions about whether to text back ensue, all of which is pulled off with a workmanlike approach by co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller. He’s handled rom-coms before (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement) and plenty of studio comedies (the Neighbors series), so I’m not quite sure how the occasional poorly blocked scene and overall flatness snuck their way into this film’s final cut. None of it proves fatal, but it does limit Bros to a passably entertaining mark, something its cast and its script deserves more than.
In its strongest moments, the film overlays the romance with a biting critique of the movie industry in which it exists. Bobby is an ardent critic of queer media, and the film lets him take direct shots at movies about his community that they didn’t get to make (RIP all gay cowboy movies). Any stridency this may bring is played off as a charming/annoying trait of Bobby’s, and it pays off in a pull-back, explain-it-to-the-straights moment reminiscent of Dan Levy’s speech in Happiest Season.
In the buildup to this point, I had been worried that they would leave the undercurrent untouched. It would be easy for the movie to become too sad if you bring it up, but by placing the film’s politics at the core of its hapless main character, dragging it out into the open serves to strengthen the bond between the two men. Once acknowledged, the dark cloud is whisked away with the kind of awkward dancing you only do around those you trust, and the moment becomes key not only to the film’s more serious messaging but also to its frothy romance.
The balancing act here of being a raucous good time and shouldering the weight of history is, unfortunately, an unwieldy burden, one Bros doesn’t always pull off so gracefully. But many of its predecessors had the same struggle, some of whom came closer to accomplishing what Bros did than it cares to admit. The aforementioned Happiest Season fits right in with the kitschy holiday rom-coms the film continuously mocks, and Fire Island preceded it so recently that it’s impossible to be acknowledged within the film. These queer rom-coms were produced and distributed in the way most rom-coms are nowadays: aimed directly at streaming. In that sense, Bros is only groundbreaking in that it’s a bit of a relic. A major studio making a rom-com for theatrical release? Who does that anymore? Bros somehow got it done, and it manages to update the genre while still giving those starved of seeing it on the big screen something familiar to savor.
Release: in theaters now
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Writers: Nicholas Stoller, Billy Eichner
Cast: Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Guy Branum, TS Madison, Miss Lawrence, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash, Eve Lindley, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Diaz