As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Nicholas Stoller’s latest romantic comedy, ‘Bros,’ starring Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and co-written with the film’s lead Billy Eichner, queer rom-com Bros follows Bobby Leiber (Eichner), a popular podcast host and LGBTQ+ historian who has built his personality around being guarded and emotionally unavailable. New York City is happy to oblige: spitting up an endless supply of no-strings-attached Grindr hookups that cater directly to Bobby’s motor-mouthed cynicism. Then, one night at a club, Bobby meeds Aaron (Luke Macfarlane, human golden retriever). The two could not be less alike, but Aaron’s meathead vibe and small-town grin begin to wear Bobby down. Soon, the pair begin to do the unthinkable: consider being in a committed relationship.
While films have consistently pegged (pun intended) Eichner as a supporting character, Bros proves that the actor is leading man material. Bobby is transparently a version of Eichner himself (a familiar zone for the actor, who has been playing with his meta-persona for ages in Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street). But even so, Bobby is allowed to forge ahead as his own independent person, and Eichner endows him with enough of a heart to make him worth sticking with.
While promoted as a satire, it’s not entirely clear what Bros is lampooning, exactly. Apart from its gay “twist” (I would add more scare quotes if I could), Bros isn’t so much a disruption of the rom-com genre as a new coat of paint on a rent-controlled apartment. Sure, the paint in question is new and far more colorful than what we’re used to. But fundamentally, the bones of the room are still the same. Calling your film an anti-romantic comedy is an intentionally spicy way of saying: “our lead character is suspicious of romantic love,” which describes the vast majority of the genre. Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built is an anti-romantic comedy … this is just a story about a cold-hearted cynic who’s used to keeping people at arm’s length only to realize that it’s okay to be vulnerable. We’ve been here before.
Ostensibly, what Bros brings to the table is its status as a “history-making LGBTQ rom-com.” And the film is keen to remind us of this claim, with Bobby (whose B-plot involves the grand opening of a queer history museum) repeatedly intoning the interlocked criticisms that (1) queer folks have historically been prohibited from telling their own stories; and (2) that the queer stories that do make it into the public eye are made by and for straight people.
While Bobby cites numerous queer cultural sources throughout the film, the omissions are just as glaring: The Watermelon Woman, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and, you know, the entire body of work of folks like Pedro Almodóvar, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters. To argue, both on and off-screen, that there is a dearth of queer films made by and for queer folks feels narratively convenient at best and disingenuous at worst.
It doesn’t help that Bros often feels like it’s speaking to the straight moms in the audience when it engages with genuinely complicated wrinkles in the queer community. Poking fun at bi-erasure takes the shape of the film’s token bisexual (Jim Rash) bemoaning that they only get one Visibility Day while the lesbians get a whole month, which is both reductive and inaccurate. (While we’re here, I know that this is a lighthearted comedy, but the film’s premise that Bobby is opening the first national queer history museum feels somewhat disrespectful to The American LGBTQ+ Museum, which has been in the works since 2017).
The film tries to get around these awkward wrinkles by lampshading the heck out of its own shortcomings. And yet, while the film is keen to have Eichner point out that he’s a space-taking cis white male, the film is oddly silent on the fact that its own director and co-writer is a straight guy.
In its final act, Bobby reminds himself that the experiences of queer folks are not universal and that trying to speak for everyone is both insulting and impossible. The film should take its own advice: Bros is at its best when it’s specific and the intricacies of the ups and downs of the central relationship are allowed to be messy and particular. That said, it often feels as though the film wants to have it both ways: to pull off big emotional gestures that universalize the LGBTQ+ romantic experience while recognizing that queer folks, and their stories, aren’t a monolith. It isn’t clear enough which side of the coin Bros favors, which feels more conspicuous than lazy.
If Bros has a claim to a spot in LGBTQ+ media history, it’s that there’s finally a queer-made (ish) middle-of-the-road rom-com your aunt Brenda from Wisconsin will recommend to you after watching it on an airplane.