It’s 2022, and a Hollywood studio has just made a movie in which two men fall in love and can’t figure out what to do about it. No one dies of AIDS. No one gets tire-ironed on the side of the road. Judd Apatow produced the thing, so you know it’s funny. And yet, somehow, “Bros” doesn’t feel like that big a deal. Sure, it’s a well-budgeted, wide-release, R-rated gay rom-com, and that’s historic (if you put enough qualifying adjectives in front of it), but one of those had to come along sooner or later. Oddly, it feels like there already have been others, and there’s no question more are coming, considering how hard Hollywood has been working to include gay characters.
The difference in what we’ll call “Billy Eichner’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” is that it centers a gay character, instead of just using him as sassy comic support. Beyond that, a cute, cranky, super-articulate and incredibly self-absorbed comedian has gone and made a movie in which a thinly veiled version of himself wrestles with whether or not he wants to be in a relationship. If that sounds like every Woody Allen movie ever, or a bunch of Billy Crystal movies, or even the last few Judd Apatow productions, you wouldn’t be wrong — except that here, some of the dialogue scenes are set during four-way orgies, because otherwise the movie would be rated PG-13 and you might as well be watching “Love, Simon.”
Eichner plays podcaster Bobby Leiber, who, in the second scene, accepts something called the Cis White Gay Man of the Year Award, an acknowledgement that even in the realm of minorities, he’s something of a privileged class. Later, the character will rant about how tough his life has been, how straight guys worked half as hard and went twice as far, but where’s the proof? “Bros” introduces him at the top of the mountain. He’s just been hired to oversee a brand-new LGBTQ+ Museum of History and Culture (Bobby describes it as a first, but like the movie, others have definitely gotten there before), and the only thing really missing in his life is someone who will listen unconditionally while he complains. Or maybe it’s someone who, by showing an interest in him, will validate his insecurities.
Despite a few funny scenes about dating apps and hookup culture (and how they’re just like that Meg Ryan movie “You’ve Got Mail,” only not), it’s not clear to audiences what Bobby wants because it’s not clear to Bobby what he wants. A relationship? A friend with benefits? A hot guy to come home to? That uncertainty is perhaps the most authentic thing about “Bros” (gay or straight, men are infamously commitment-averse); indeed, this element could be what co-writer and director Nicholas Stoller brings to the equation, considering how astutely he examined that aspect of modern dating in “The Five-Year Engagement.”
In “Bros,” Bobby goes to the club one night and sees a chiseled guy with a gym body on the dance floor. He strikes up an awkward conversation with this seemingly out-of-his-league hunk, Aaron (Luke Macfarlane). “I hear you’re boring,” he begins, as if trying out Neil Strauss’ “The Game” on another dude. When that backfires, Bobby goes in for a kiss. He finds it refreshing that Aaron isn’t on the apps, but isn’t bothered that the same night, he’s hooking up with other people. This is the territory where “Bros” breaks new ground, since the “rules” of gay rom-coms have yet to be codified: like whether having someone’s undivided attention is a turn-off or a good thing, and what each character needs to feel appreciated and adored. Certainly, there aren’t many straight love stories where a meet-cute is followed by one of the parties going off to shag someone else.
There, surrounded by a sea of shirtless men, the two bond over their mutual belief that “gay guys are so stupid,” which feels like a bit from Eichner’s “Difficult People” series. But what does such a judgment mean to Bobby and Aaron, who aren’t shown reading books or discussing politics — unless you count talking about the gay experience, which is pretty much all Bobby does. He has provocative opinions (“love is love” was just a marketing gimmick, he argues, a kind of bait-and-switch to earn straight support) worth exploring and paradoxical taste in movies (Eichner ridicules how the Hallmark Channel has embraced LGBT relationships, but doesn’t see the ways his own script exploits the same clichés). Bobby’s gig as a podcast host conveniently serves as a comedy-adjacent career choice, allowing the character to wisecrack at will, while his museum job becomes a place to audition fresh material about lesbians, bisexuals and trans people, who also find a place at the table.
“Bros” is confident enough being about queer characters that it doesn’t have to make them all likable. In fact, Eichner may not win you over at all. Aaron obviously likes him, despite spending most of their dates ogling other guys (the film makes some strong points about body dysmorphia in the image-conscious community, but never convinces that Bobby is turned on by Aaron’s big brain). But double standards abound: Whenever Bobby invites Aaron to something, he winds up prioritizing work, as in a fundraising trip to Provincetown that brings cameos from Harvey Fierstein and Bowen Yang. It seems like a big step when the holidays roll around and Aaron proposes introducing Bobby to his parents — but then he backtracks by saying, “Maybe you could be a little less yourself for like three hours,” to which Bobby is understandably offended.
If you don’t count pandemic-made blunder “The Bubble,” Apatow’s recent formula — from “Trainwreck” to “The King of Staten Island” — has been to take a funny person and encourage them to be the most themselves they can be for nearly three hours, so it’s clear where he stands on this comment. But we get what Aaron’s saying: Eichner is a lot to deal with, and not because he’s gay. He just doesn’t seem interested in sharing the oxygen with anybody else. Why is Aaron the one who hates his life and has to quit his job in this movie? Wouldn’t it be more satisfying for perennially dissatisfied Bobby to evolve in some way, beyond merely realizing that he was happier with Aaron around?
There are plenty of audiences out there who’ve been waiting their entire lives for Hollywood to greenlight a mainstream gay movie (and sure, we’ll pretend that all the queer-friendly content on HBO and Netflix doesn’t count, that “The Birdcage” and “In & Out” never happened, that John Waters is too cult and “Moonlight” too marginal). But it won’t be lost on them that when the industry decided it was ready for a film like “Bros” to exist, the leads wound up being two conventionally handsome cis white men. Yes, there’s a whole spectrum of experience still going unexplored, and yet, as Bobby and Aaron try to make their relationship work, “Bros” does a decent job of showing how incredibly different and complex these two characters can be. “Straight people love seeing us miserable,” Bobby observes at one point, and though Eichner gives the gays a happy ending and lots of laughs along the way, damned if he doesn’t seem miserable for most of the movie.