Billy Eichner’s slick Judd Apatow-produced gay comedy, Bros, carries with it the specific sort of baggage that only a “first” is forced to carry. As the first theatrically released studio gay rom-com, the first studio film co-written by and starring an openly gay man and the first studio film with a majority LGBTQ+ cast, it’s a light movie made heavy with expectation – will it be gay enough or good enough or accessible enough or profitable enough – an unfair yet unavoidable heap of crosses to bear.
Eichner is of course acutely aware of this and so is his film, through-lined with fears over the difficulties of making gay art, how to feel important as a gay person and how to exist and excel in a culture dominated by straight people (should we beat them or join them?). His comedy, best known from Billy on the Street and the short-lived series Difficult People, has always been intense and anxiety-ridden, he has a nervy energy that’s uncomfortably infectious to watch (“Name a woman!”), and it tracks that his first film as a writer would be also filled with existential gay angst.
His character Bobby is a version of himself just a few degrees to the left – a successful podcaster who prides himself on being single and self-sufficient, existing on the intimacy of friendships and the brief pleasure of random hookups while balking at the ways that other gays choose to define themselves and their romantic lives. He rolls his eyes at marriage, throuples and shirtless circuit party gym bros – that is until he meets one of them, who upends his expectations. Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) is introduced to him as hot but boring and so Bobby is surprised when he finds something more substantive and slowly romantic. The two men, who have chosen a life devoid of commitment, have to navigate how the alternative might work.
There’s a tension throughout Bros between making a gay film and making The Gay Film We Need Right Now, the micro vs the macro, and it’s something that takes Eichner, and co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller, some time to iron out. In the opening stretch, a few too many lines of dialogue feel closer to Twitter takes, plainly stated “the thing about … is” witticisms, a strain to always be “saying something” rather than just speaking. But Eichner’s confidence in how he chooses to get his many points across soon grows, embedded within the plot with more dexterity. And when the balance between the rom, the com and the commentary works, Bros really flies.
One of Billy-Bobby’s complaints about the increased acceptance of gay culture – the assertion that love is love, that gay relationships are just the same as straight ones – is something that the character and the film around him are eager to disprove. Despite the gloss and the wide release that Bros is about to be given, Eichner isn’t that interested in pandering to straight audiences, to over-explain what poppers are or what Grindr is or worry if he’s putting them off. He trusts them enough to figure it out or if they don’t, he’s too busy elsewhere to care.
There’s rich detail in the small character moments, like both men sadly recalling the jobs they wanted to have as kids before they worried about how gay that would make them seem, and unlike so many other loosely autobiographical concoctions that have been more clouded by ego, he’s willing to make his character believably unlikeable at important moments. I’d argue he could have been a bit harder on himself, especially in the grand romantic apology-filled finale which falls a little too heavily on the shoulders of the other bro, but in a subgenre filled with writers creepily insisting their loveliness, it’s better and knottier than the norm.
Eichner also manages to make a surprisingly convincing segue from comedy bit-player to leading man, not just delivering on the many funny moments (toning down his trademark manic delivery is key) but doing a more-than-competent job at the messier stuff too (there’s a particularly effective monologue on the beach in Provincetown about being seen as “too gay”). Inevitably Macfarlane’s bro gets a little less texture and at times his existence and some of his dialogue borders on fan fiction (he tells Bobby how incredible he is on numerous occasions but the same is rarely said back to him) but the actor, a Hallmark Channel stalwart, makes for a charming vision of what a dream boyfriend could be. The supporting cast, made almost entirely of LGBTQ+ actors (bar two smart cameos from Debra Messing and Kristin Chenoweth and some other surprises at the end), are strong in small bursts, and the scenes of Eichner warring with other group representatives in the fight to open an LGBTQ+ museum are very amusing.
Pairing Eichner with Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Stoller, who knows how to deliver a crowd-pleasing studio comedy, gives Bros that sleek efficiency that comes with the best Apatow productions, the familiar mixture of genuine laughter, cutting insight and sugar-free warmth (it also has the slightly baggy runtime that has become a less desirable ingredient). It’s big and clever in a way that so few films of this scale are these days – a pleasure to be shepherded through the easy motions of a romantic comedy by people who know what they’re doing for once, and manages to walk a difficult tightrope without falling, despite the heft of baggage. It might not be The Gay Film We Need Right Now (is anything worthy of that title?) but it’ll be one that many of us will want instead.
Bros is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 30 September and in the UK on 28 October