The major Hollywood studios have largely abandoned romantic comedies in the last decade or so. This seems like a giant failure of imagination. The financial success of Crazy Rich Asians illustrates that the future of romantic films has been audiences that Hollywood considers “niche.” There’s clearly plenty of money (and cultural cachet, which might be even more important for Tinseltown right now) to be made from crowds who haven’t seen themselves on the big screen.
Bros stakes out one of the last frontiers, as it’s a mainstream comedy about gay men. There were gay romantic comedies before this, of course, but it means something that this is a film with A-list talent behind the scenes and a high-profile release on thousands of screens. It means even more that this is funny enough to amuse even the straights.
Billy Eichner portrays Bobby Leiber, the 40-year-old author of the failed children’s book Are You There, God? It’s Me, Martina Navratilova. He’s now a podcaster with a million subscribers and the executive director of a national gay history museum that’s scheduled to open in midtown Manhattan amid whispers of financial insolvency. He’s not looking for love, but then he spots Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane) shirtless in a gay club. Aaron is not Bobby’s type — his cultural touchstones are Garth Brooks and The Office, which prompts Bobby to say, “This person isn’t gay.” Yet these two men who pride themselves on their emotional unavailability fall for each other, and need to let down their respective guard to make it all work.
Eichner is also the co-writer on this project, and he admirably resists the urge to make his character into some paragon of gay humanity. Bobby is neurotic, driven, angry, more than a bit of a pill, with a tendency to push his point too far as he argues with the other museum curators. He freely admits being intimidated by the sculpted bodies of the gay men around him and on Grindr, and he’s not overly surprised when he walks in on Aaron and finds him injecting testosterone to keep his muscles in shape. (Later, Bobby tries the same thing, and the resulting roid rage makes him destroy his museum’s Abraham Lincoln exhibit.) He unburdens his relationship drama to Will & Grace star Debra Messing (who portrays herself), which leads to a hilarious outburst from the Emmy-winning actress about her gay fans: “I am not your best friend! Grace was a character I played. I’m a divorced single mother, but does anybody want to hear what that’s like?” She demands to be given a tour by one of Bobby’s female colleagues: “At least lesbians have their shit together.”
Aaron has his own hang-ups about his homosexuality; he hates his job as a probate lawyer but is afraid to pursue his dream job because he thinks it’s too “faggy.” He tells Bobby to “tone it down” in front of his parents, which leads to Bobby going the opposite way and acting like the most militant gay man ever at a terrible Christmas dinner. These set pieces are held together by the strength of the comic writing by Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller — Bobby calls himself “whatever happens to Evan Hansen” and describes his inability to relate to gay millennials: “We had AIDS. They had Glee.”
This is complemented by comedy from other quarters. You’ll remember that Stoller pulled off the difficult trick of making sex scenes funny in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, and he manages something similar here, as Bobby and Aaron’s rough horseplay goes to some weird places, and their attempt at a three-way is joined by a fourth man (Brock Ciarlelli) whom none of the others know or want around. Kristin Chenoweth (who also plays herself) shows up in a rainbow dress that’s still hurting my eyes, and Bowen Yang pops in as a rich weirdo who wants a roller coaster inside the museum in exchange for his donation. Bros ends with Bobby proclaiming his love in public with an original country song entitled “Love Is Not Love” (written by Eichner and Marc Shaiman) that’s a sweetly perfect capper to this film. Let other gay romances do more innovative things with the form. This is the movie we need to clear the way for them and make us laugh in the meantime.
Starring Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane. Directed by Nicholas Stoller. Written by Billy Eichner and Nicholas Stoller. Rated R.