As anticipation for director Nicholas Stoller’s big gay rom-com Bros has been building over the past few months, ahead of its US theatrical release from Universal on September 30th, I felt a little nervous about the pressure resting on co-writer and star Billy Eichner’s shoulders. Turns out, there was nothing to worry about. He has certified comedy gold on his hands, that surpassed my expectations in every way. I’d hoped to laugh, but didn’t think I’d also be wiping away the tears while watching Bros with an audience of two thousand at Friday night’s world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival.
Eichner plays the cynical but lovable, quick-witted New Yorker Bobby Leiber, who hosts an LGBTQ podcast called The 11th Brick – because he’s a cis white gay guy, and it was probably a cis white gay guy who threw the 11th brick at Stonewall. A joke that’s typical of the film’s playful referencing of queer history that manages to be funny while honouring our queer ancestors. Without relinquishing the comedy, there’s one particularly touching sequence when the screen fills with the faces of LGBTQ historical figures.
With his rapid-fire delivery, masking an inner-vulnerability, Eichner is hilarious as forty-year-old Bobby who doesn’t subscribe to the idea that “love is love”. He thinks it’s different for the gays, and says he’s content spending time with his large circle of queer friends, and enjoys his “cold and awkward Grindr hookups”, followed by solo strolls through the city. Strolls that are gorgeously shot by Sundance award-winning cinematographer Brandon Trost, who nails the Manhattan rom-com walk and talk, while capturing the essence of New York as it looks today. Complete with a hysterical CitiBike moment.
There’s instant chemistry during the gay nightclub meet-cute, with bro jock lawyer Aaron Shepard (a fantastic and charismatic Luke Macfarlane from Christmas rom-com Single All the Way) all hunky and shirtless catching Bobby’s eye on the dancefloor. As you’d expect with a rom-com though, there’s plenty to keep them apart. They’re both happy playing the field—usually with multiple players at a time in Aaron’s case—and Aaron’s dashing good looks bring out Bobby’s insecurities, struggling to believe that such a dreamboat could ever be seriously interested in him.
Whereas some mainstream gay movies seem like pretty standard hetero girl-meets-boy scripts, where a girl happens to have been replaced by another boy, that’s never the case with Bros. Part of what keeps these guys apart while we’re willing them to be together, is some residual internalized homophobia that manifests in different ways for each of them, however comfortable with themselves they might seem. The Velvet Rage of it all, growing up gay in a straight society, is eloquently and insightfully expressed in a speech that Bobby has on the beach in Provincetown, where he recounts a lifetime of being told to “tone it down”. That speech moved me to floods of tears in recognition, as his words distilled the essence of the experience that so many LGBTQ folks can relate to. As Bobby, Eichner delivers it in a passionate, poignant way that feels like he’s been waiting for decades to say it, in the midst of a movie it feels like he’s been waiting for years to make. It’s one of the scenes that elevates the movie from a perfect rom-com, to a movie with far more depth than we usually associate with the genre.
There’s nothing generic about the sex scenes either. They help to move the narrative along, and inform the characters and the dynamics between them, all while being super gay, very funny, and damn hot, without being sanitized for a mass cinemagoing audience.
Although Bobby protests that he’s not into rom-coms, we see him sitting in front of You’ve Got Mail on TV—while DMing a dude on Grindr—and the movie is filled with meta references to made up LGBTQ movies and 90s rom-coms, and includes one of the best movie bathroom singing scenes since Pretty Woman. As Bobby reminds us, there’s a “faggot” joke in one of the highest grossing movie comedies of all-time, and for far too long, LGBTQ folks have been the butt of the joke. Something that continues to this day with the transphobic “comedy” specials. So it feels empowering to see a comedy where LGBTQ actors—the entire principal cast is LGBTQ—are in on the joke, driving the comedy about our community.
There are queer actors delivering some wonderful supporting performances in Bros as straight characters too. Like Aaron’s supportive brother (Jai Rodriguez) and Bobby’s brother-in-law Edgar, a role that Guillermo Díaz brings so much warmth to as the accepting father of Bobby’s young nephew who they think is gay. It’s an acknowledgment that the upcoming generation of kids who, if given the right environment, whether LGBTQ themselves or not, can grow up knowing that whoever they are is okay. A sentiment that’s echoed in Bobby’s desire for kids to come to the country’s first national LGBTQ history museum, which he’s been tasked with overseeing the creation of.
Bobby’s museum position cleverly allows for every LGBTQ letter to be present in the movie in a way that simultaneously celebrates and pokes fun at ideas about diversity and representation. Without banging us over the head with a “message”, we’re also reminded that although being queer is not a monolith and that we all come with our own experiences, we’re always stronger together as one family. The museum board, portrayed by an excellent ensemble, features a Black trans woman, Angela (Ts Madison), a Black gender nonconfirming gay man, Wanda (Miss Lawrence), a cis white bi man Robert (Jim Rash), a Latinx trans woman, Tamara (Eve Lindley), and a cis white lesbian, Cherry (Dot-Marie Jones). Crucially, despite their relatively short screen time, it never feels like these characters are tokenized or othered alongside the cis white gay leads. Thanks to the snappy writing and committed performances, as the jokes keep on coming, they all feel like fully-fledged characters who could get their own spin-off movies.
There are some fabulous cameos in there too. Debra Messing is particularly funny playing a version of herself who becomes enraged by continually being treated as if she’s her character from Will & Grace, while gay entertainment trailblazer Harvey Fierstein’s appearance got a round of applause at the TIFF premiere before he’d even spoken a line as Bobby and Aaron’s apartment host on their trip to Provincetown. SNL favourite Bowen Yang gives a tour-de-force comic turn as a billionaire who Bobby is trying to hit up for cash to open the museum. And although they might not appear in the film, gay icons Streisand and Mariah are present in some form. All of which helps to create a delightfully rich tapestry of queer culture. There’s a killer Caitlyn Jenner joke in there too.
With a screenplay co-written with Stoller, Eichner has created a quintessential New York rom-com that consistently hits every romantic and comedy beat. As director, Stoller maintains the momentum and delivers a pace that never falters, orchestrating a comic rhythm that keeps things sizzling, while also allowing the movie’s emotional moments time to breathe.
Bros is a triumph. An instant classic rom-com that’s up there with the best in the genre, while delivering something fresh, contemporary, and very queer. It’s romantic and feel-good, with something to say. Without seeing ourselves in history—or on screen in big studio rom-coms—it can be hard for us to find our place in the world. Bros, historic itself, is part of redressing that, giving us a helluva good time while doing it. Everyone will have a blast watching this movie, but there are moments in there that will be particularly resonant and even deeply moving for an LGBTQ audience. So take your friends, take your Grindr hookup, take your mom; go see Bros on opening weekend and make this the big gay box office hit it deserves to be.
By James Kleinmann
Bros received its world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival and is released in theaters on Friday, September 30th 2022.