If Gay Twitter wrote a rom-com, it would be Bros. Nicholas Stoller and co-writer/star Billy Eichner’s big history-making rom-com – being the first major studio queer rom-com starring queer actors, a fact that the marketing and extras wouldn’t stop hitting on to its arguable detriment – is equal parts self-deprecating and self-defensive. Very funny and also Terminally Online.
Simultaneously afraid of completely baring its heart, resulting in performative swipes at mainstream queer pop culture like Queer Eye and Schitt’s Creek which get later walked back as Eichner’s avatar Bobby learns to be more vulnerable, and capable of affecting insights into specific gay male anxieties over body dysmorphia and imposter syndrome that you rarely find in mainstream media. That abrasiveness, whilst never fully going away (which is the point), eventually subsides to provide the kind of warm fuzzy feels great rom-coms with all the trimmings, including a climactic run through New York City at night because of course, specialise in.
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And, to be clear, Bros is a great rom-com. In the vein of Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, it is a rom-com torn between being a sweet straightforward example of the form and a specifically-tailored Judd Apatow (who produces) vehicle designed to showcase the skills of its stand-up star thrust into leading-man territory. As such, it’s understandable if the rom-com virtues can be obscured for some viewers by Eichner’s whole act. Very outspoken, very abrasive, very self-loathing, and very concerned with leftist activism.
His Bobby Lieber, a 40-something queer historian podcaster chairing the nation’s first LGBTQ+ history museum who’s never been in a serious relationship, is both an amplifying and softening of the persona found in his stand-up and Billy on the Street material. Often highly judge-y of other gay men, constantly barrelling over anybody who strikes up a conversation, very cynical, and in constant combat with the world around him, albeit all coming from the pains of a life growing up out-and-proud around people who refused to accept him that way.
Hence, one night whilst out having an unfulfilling time at a gay club, the introduction of Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane). Aaron’s the kind of beefy, muscle-headed gay who doesn’t know who Bette Midler is and sends Office gifs to end text conversations. If Bobby is an almost stereotypical ageing flamboyant twink who outwardly refuses to let anyone think they’re getting to him – “I am the champion of being emotionally unavailable!” he yells at Aaron at the end of the initial meet-cute – then Aaron is the reluctant gay who has a deep-rooted shame about being seen as too queer and puts so much effort into gliding through life making as little trouble as possible. Bobby loves Whitney Houston; Aaron loves Garth Brooks. Aaron’s favourite movie is The Hangover; Bobby is the kind of person to launch into a giant rant about that movie’s rampant homophobia upon being told, then be made uncomfortable when Aaron shortly thereafter tells him he only said it was The Hangover to intentionally set Bobby off.
In many respects, neither man makes sense together. In many other respects, they make total sense together. Part of that is due to Eichner and Macfarlane’s natural easy-going chemistry. It’s really telling how much Macfarlane’s looser energy manages to temper Eichner’s full-force high-strung assault, especially when paired with the scenes at the LGBTQ+ museum where Bobby has to interact with other equally stubborn high-strung queers.
Aaron doesn’t let Bobby push him over, much like how Macfarlane doesn’t submit to Eichner in the screen presence contest, but having someone who mostly listens and gently nudges where needs be creates a more intimate and relaxed relationship between the two leads even before they start being truly vulnerable with each other. You can also see a sparkle in Aaron’s, and by extension Macfarlane’s, eyes in many of his scenes with Bobby which just isn’t there in the glimpses of his day-to-day life and how someone like Bobby can inspire Aaron to take steps towards embracing his own happiness.
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For all of Bros’ abrasion – and, by God, there’s a lot of abrasion; at times, being in the presence of Bobby can be like hanging around that one friend on Twitter who just will not relax about anything for even a second – this is a very finely observed film tangibly based on lived experience. I say this as one myself, we queers can be really fucking annoying and it’s a lot of fun to see a mainstream studio movie which embraces that fact. It makes everyone feel more human, more fully rounded.
Sometimes a defence mechanism born from of decades where being Out out could get you murdered and a resultant fear of letting anyone truly get close, and sometimes just how people can be. (“I support progress not just for our LGBTQ heroes, but also our LGBTQ assholes,” Jim Rash’s scene-stealing Robert notes.) Eichner and Stoller’s screenplay resultantly walks a beautifully fine line in having Bobby need to ease up on the defensive posturing he brings to every relationship without “toning [himself] down” in the process, and that’s the kind of character and thematic exploration you can only get from queer creatives (plus straight allies willing to consult with and cede floor to queer creatives as Stoller does) who know what they’re talking about.
If there’s one major flaw with Bros that can’t be chalked up to personal preference, it’s the sloppy editing. Unlike most other Apatow joints, Bros never drags or feels too long. Stoller is a director who, even with his films often cresting the two-hour mark, has repeatedly shown throughout his career a willingness to kill his darlings if they don’t serve the movie at large – including here; there are a pair of bonus featurettes dedicated to the makings of two different set pieces which ended up being cut and Stoller’s candid reasoning for that. But the shot orders, choice of edits, and lax attitude towards continuity during many exchanges are often distractingly noticeable.
It’s not hard to spot where two or three separate takes have been spliced together to make one scene; eyelines not set properly, jarring shifts in body movements, angles slightly askew, dialogue beats and cuts crashing in too sharply. A few scenes have a more stylised montage-y look and feel from the rest of the movie that doesn’t fit. A post-breakup series of scenes involving Bobby taking steroids clearly feels like they couldn’t decide on a natural flow of events in the edit bay. All of this creates a bit of a sloppy shop feel for a movie which otherwise looks properly glossy like I like my studio rom-coms.
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That glossiness also extends to the Blu-ray’s bonus contents. Maybe my expectations have just been sufficiently beaten down after the last half-decade of Blu-rays where even getting one five-minute featurette is equivalent to a buffet, but Universal have provided a fair amount of extras for this package. There’s almost a quarter-hour of deleted scenes that are both largely funny and immediately understandable as to why they got cut.
There are nearly an hour of featurettes breaking down the process from conception to last day of principal photography, spotlighting members of the all-LGBTQ principal cast, the ways in which Bobby and Aaron contrast and compliment each other, the conventions of a rom-com and how Bros plays into them, and of course a blooper reel. Practically the only mid-00s extra this release doesn’t have is a commentary track. They’re good if sometimes redundant, each feature stepping on another’s toes with reused talking points, and they lean hard on the “it’s a major milestone in LGBTQ+ representation for a studio movie” bullet point which, even as someone fully leftist yaaaas kween about stuff like this, can get tiresome.
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The release also includes the theatrical trailer which I hadn’t seen before and, upon watching it, I completely understand why Bros bombed at the cinema (for reasons other than internalised uncomfortableness regarding homosexuality in general audiences). Talk about putting your worst foot forward; foregrounding the defensive abrasiveness and ‘it’s a landmark representation moment’ aspect whilst stripping away any of the nuance showing how those weave fittingly into the overall piece, observational queer detail and emotional depth which is at the core of the film.
Bros can be a lot and it’s certainly not for everyone – which is a point the film makes at the outset, belittling the idea of “love is love is love” when gay men have vastly different relationship experiences to the heteronormative rom-com standard. But it is very funny, it is very sweet, it is very specifically-drawn, and it is ultimately disarmingly vulnerable and romantic. Hopefully it can find the second-life that it deserves on home media.