At the end of the 2007 teen comedy Superbad, drunk teenagers Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) lie in a sleeping bag on the floor after a night of mischief and debauchery and say “I love you” to each other for the first time. From the way they say it, you can tell they’ve never said it out loud before. They repeat it over and over, as the words feel strange on their tongues. At that moment, Seth and Evan have finally been released from the societal confines that have been holding them back from admitting the importance of their friendship. “Why don’t we say that every day?” Evan asks.
At the time of its release, Superbad seemed like the comeback of vulnerable male friendships portrayed on the screen, a trend that had been explored in the 20th century with films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Blues Brothers (1980), and the Rocky sequels. But Superbad was, in a sense, a total game-changer. Its takeaway was that, as a guy, it’s okay to really love your best friend, even in Seth and Evan’s thankless high school world that told them that the most important thing about being a man is not letting your feelings be known.
Two years later, I Love You, Man came out, and it was almost as if we were becoming reacquainted with Seth and Evan 10 years later. But even in that adult world, the close male friendship is kind of… foreign. At the beginning of the film, Peter (Paul Rudd) admits that he’s never really had a male friend before, and when he finds one in Sydney (Jason Segel), it’s the missing link in his otherwise perfect life.
But that kind of friendship is not something the people in Peter’s universe are used to. Amidst gay jokes and the inability for Peter’s family to wrap their heads around what has suddenly afflicted him, Peter’s fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones) nearly calls off their wedding, in part because this new relationship is so difficult for her to contend with. But when, at the end of the film, Peter finally admits to Sydney, “I love you, man,” all is restored in the world, the wedding proceeds with flying colors, and the barrier of strangeness has finally been broken. The answer was simple in this new comedic genre, and that was a beautiful thing.
In short, Superbad and I Love You, Man gave us hope for the future. They informed us that the boundaries of masculinity could, in fact, be broken, and the male friendship could all of a sudden be expressed as explicitly as “I love you, man.” Seth, Evan, Peter, and Sydney are crass, partying, modern men, as well as men who aren’t afraid to have a best friend. Before the turn of the decade, it seemed that this rebuilding of the male friendship was lighting the torch for a dozen more Superbads and I Love You, Mans, and, by extension, setting a promising new precedent for the way we talk about the bromance.
But it didn’t really turn out that way. With a few exceptions, like 50/50 (2011) and 22 Jump Street (2014), the 21-century bromance didn’t really take off with the same fire as it did in the ’60s and ’70s. It seemed that audiences just couldn’t relate to the stories anymore. The concept of the “modern man” was very much in flux for a good amount of the 2010s, as some men claimed they felt abandoned by a society that had forced a rigid definition of manhood on them for centuries and recently let go of it. It seems, then, that this year, at the turn of the decade, in the #MeToo era, which shines a light on dangerous male celebrity and political role models, male friendships are more important to reflect on than ever.
Given this, it is no coincidence that four of the highest-grossing and most talked about films of 2019 center around a male friendship. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes place in LA in 1969 and centers around iconic TV-Western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and the final throes of what turns out to be an incommensurable friendship. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is quite different from the majority of Tarantino’s work; it’s slow, quiet, introspective, and ultimately the work of an old master filmmaker reflecting on his life and his career. It’s not his first film that features a male duo — see Pulp Fiction (1994) and Django Unchained (2012) — but it certainly is the one with the most to say about the subject.
Tarantino’s intention in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is ultimately to realize his fantasy of a world in which that year was just another year. What would 2019 look like if 1969 hadn’t been poisoned by the paranoia of a post-Manson-murders world? Well, it’s nice to think that the world would be just a little bit freer, and men like Rick and Cliff could sit around watching The F.B.I. and drinking beer with the promise that their friendship would last forever. But Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s revisionist ending doesn’t come without consequence. At the end of the film, after Cliff saves both Rick and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) from the Manson Family, the two buddies say goodbye in a way that indicates that they won’t be seeing each other again — or, at least, they won’t be cracking a beer together — anytime soon.
Rick is able to hold onto his status as a classic actor (who knows, maybe he’ll be cast as Jake in next-door neighbor Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)), but one thing is clear: Cliff isn’t coming along for the ride this time. In this redirection of history, Rick has become the mythical modern man that his new agent, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) tells him about at the beginning of the film. Tarantino looks to the past for the best friendship in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, because, given the underrepresentation of such relationships in the 21 century, it seems that’s the only thing he can do. And even though he changes history in the most audacious, Tarantinian way possible, even he knows that this kind of friendship has become a thing of the past.
Robert Eggers’ sophomore feature, The Lighthouse, presents a different kind of story about male friendship. The Lighthouse is set a hundred years before Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, in a secluded New England lighthouse. In the film, Thomas (Willem Dafoe) shows Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) the ropes of lighthouse-keeping, and the bonding nature of the arduous work alongside the isolated nature of the job forces them into friendship. Before long, Thomas and Winslow are drinking together and sharing anecdotes from their past. Needless to say, it’s a different, more crass and ominous kind of friendship than Rick and Cliff’s, and, no, that isn’t just because of the nefarious mermaid that comes between Thomas and Winslow, or their subsequent descent into complete psychosis. Eggers subverts the stereotype of the “working man,” someone who is private but lustful, drinks too much and is crude, and, ultimately, puts his identity as a dedicated, masculine laborer before anything else, and he turns it into something unusual. When Winslow wraps his arms around Thomas, it takes us by surprise, but when Winslow buries Thomas alive, it does much less so.
We ultimately never really know if The Lighthouse is an honest depiction of two late 1800s lighthouse keepers, or some insane, boundless fantasy. But, the latter option, which is supported by the uncanny, magical nature of the film, indicates a kind of wishful thinking that surrounds Thomas and Winslow’s friendship. Eggers, like Tarantino, looks far into the past for the subjects of this relationship, as well as reminding us it is probably imagined. The moments of untouched love and comradery in The Lighthouse are ultimately steeped in convenient isolation and suspension of disbelief. A friendship like this still feels a little far away.
Martin Scorsese‘s The Irishman tells the true story of the downfall of union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) as told retrospectively by his best friend, Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro). In the film, Scorsese offers a similar tone of reflectiveness as Tarantino. The two are aging masters who have seen the coming and going of the peaks of their careers and are now meditating on what was important to them in their worlds that have since changed so much. For Scorsese, this comes in the form of the friendship between Jimmy and Frank, and, when the film ends and Frank discusses his accomplishments and regrets with a chaplain, it’s difficult to tell whether he regrets the sacrifice of his friendship for the lure of belonging to the 1960s New York mob, but you kind of get the sense he does.
Though we’d all like to see a 2019 bromance from Scorsese or Tarantino, the truth is the historical elements of their most recent films are what shine a light on the fact that we are not yet ready for that; we still have a long way to go when it comes to dismantling toxic ideas of masculinity. Perhaps this next decade will yield long-overdue changes, and perhaps Tarantino’s “last film” will premiere just in time. Perhaps another decade of films will change the way we look at things. I, for one, believe it can.