Out of the Celluloid Closet

The Trouble With Bros

Early on in Nicholas Stoller and Billy Eichner’s mainstream gay “rom-com” Bros, someone rather casually utters the phrase, “you have a very cliched view of gay life.”

It’s a sentiment that stuck with me throughout the entirety of the film, as I was forced to watch Eichner and his co-star Luke Macfarlane go through the motions of every last gay cliche we’ve seen in the past decade of television and film. As I’ve noted about other recent gay works that are desperate for mainstream appeal, from Q-Force to Uncoupled, there’s a fixation on how to make gay people funny to straight people. 

It works under the same presumption that many a post-Will & Grace show has: that the only way to make “accessible” or “mainstream” gay art is by removing any real queerness and just making gay people easy to laugh at, not with. It isn’t just that queer people are the butt of practically every joke, but the level of condescension that comes with the film’s style of humor. No one has a personality, no matter how desperately the film tries to convince you otherwise, and the film seems fixated on trying to solidify Billy Eichner’s place in queer history rather than actually exploring the queer histories it consistently references. 

But first, let’s set the stage: Eichner’s Bobby (presumably named after Stephen Sondheim’s perpetually single protagonist from Company) is a perpetually single 40-year-old cis man who has internalized the idea that being lonely just works for him. He hosts a podcast about queer history (an especially rich narrative choice that makes Eichner’s ahistorical interview comments funnier than the film itself) and, also improbably, acts as the director of what the film posits is the first national queer history museum (which is unequivocally ahistorical nonsense). 

His co-star Luke Macfarlane plays Aaron, the kind of masculine gay man (or “bro”) that f*ggots on Twitter love to make fun of while exclusively fucking men exactly like them. Aaron is every bit as single and uninterested in settling down, and the film throws them together as much as possible in an attempt to make their romance even moderately interesting. There’s no real arc to their relationship other than Bobby essentially forcing his vocal queerness on the masc man he’s dating (which, frankly, his queerness isn’t the issue, but rather that he’s f*cking annoying.) It’s hard to find anything romantic or even particularly funny about their coupling. 

Bobby is insufferable to the core; he’s meant to be relatable in the same way that many a romcom’s leading lady should be, but somehow unaware of his own awfulness. You wouldn’t be remiss to call him an incel considering how much time he spends trying to neg Aaron into being into him after the man repeatedly emphasizes he has no interest.  But the film positions Bobby as someone relatable rather than detestable. Practically every time the script attempts to critique him, Eichner and co-writer Stoller shrug it off to emphasize how important it is for Bobby to learn how to “change” and “become a better person” through this relationship. One might argue that he does grow, but the script and its constant tone of condescension for those around it argue otherwise. 

Take the way the film approaches discussing any piece of art that isn’t itself. Bros doesn’t just roll its eyes at other queer works (with Brokeback Mountain and Power of the Dog, two excellent works despite their use of straight actors in gay roles), but actively scoffs at the idea that a Hallmark movie about a bisexual couple or a polyamorous collective could be meaningful to someone. It casually loathes everything that doesn’t agree with its own point of view – and that weighs it down more than its lack of jokes or even the slightest hint of a believable romance. It’s desperate to be You’ve Got Mail or When Harry Met Sally for gay men, but, beyond the fact that the two leads have next to no chemistry, they also don’t particularly have any personality either beyond one being annoying and the other a blank slate. 

You could throw a rock on any corner in New York and hit a handsome white cis gay man who only dates handsome white cis gay men.

Neither Bobby nor Aaron is anything particularly special. You could throw a rock on any corner in New York and hit a handsome white cis gay man who only dates handsome white cis gay men. Despite both men seemingly being averse to the concept of settling down, any remote attempt at approaching a non-normative relationship is positioned as grotesque and unappealing. Group sex—as opposed to good old monogamy—is in particular thrown under the bus, insults and jokes are lobbed at bisexuals and anyone who sleeps with someone who doesn’t look just like them. The film is, for some reason, constantly preoccupied with condemning any perceivable femininity in queer men. Even the film’s sex scenes between the couple are flat out designed to be laughed at rather than seen as something intimate or even appealing. As much as Bros likes to position itself as progressive and necessary, it’s as stuck in the past as the most conservative gay man who is preoccupied with passing as normal in order to be accepted. 

Now, to be fair, cis gay men of a certain age have a certain, let’s say, different perspective on what it means to exist and date as queer in the world. Maybe dating fats or femmes or people of color or multiple people at once is something that the writers of this film can’t fathom. To its credit, Bros does, in fact, have a number of setpieces with Bobby’s coworkers – the film’s only real attempt at inclusivity by having Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Dot-Marie Jones, and Jim Rash in positions of power at the museum – actively bringing up diversity and privilege within the queer community. But more than anything, these moments serve to have these characters bickering and come across more as an argument about how we all need to get along and stop the in-fighting that each section of the community has. This, obviously, is a very white cis gay male thing to feature in a film about queerness; Eichner is simply more preoccupied with showing that we’re all assholes instead of acknowledging his character’s narcissism (and his own, as we have clearly seen on Twitter.)

As much as Bros likes to position itself as progressive and necessary, it’s as stuck in the past as the most conservative gay man who is preoccupied with passing as normal in order to be accepted. 

Without diving too deep into Eichner’s atrocious press tour for the film – which, most recently, has climaxed with the actor pivoting from blaming queer people for his bad box office report to blaming heterosexuals for being homophobic – everything about Bros feels stale and dated. Any commentary it wants to make about gay men is negated by the fact that it, ultimately, becomes everything it is critiquing without a hint of self-awareness. This isn’t a problem inherent to the film’s lead but the film itself, as even Eichner himself has acted in a much better variation on the joke of how much masculinity appeals to gay men everywhere: Difficult People’s excellent ">“Italian Piñata”.

Though the great Julie Klausner (creator, writer, and co-star of the series) provides the true genius of the episode – an elaborate set-up about how all the things that make her hated as a fat Jewish girl are what makes Italian women appreciate her – it’s hard not to watch Bros without thinking back to Billy’s arc in the episode. Billy, upon realizing that a hot man only wants to fuck him if he pretends he’s masc and just came out on Coming Out Day, does exactly that. Where Bros’ critiques of masculinity fall flat because of just how much it falls into the same habits it claims to make fun of, the humor of this episode is entirely based around this performance and perception of masculinity in the best way (i.e. pretending not to know who Judy Garland and her daughters are and saying “she’s really fucking hot in The Wizard of Oz” to prove how long you’ve been straight.)

Difficult People—as opposed to Bros—is a prime example of how to approach queer comedy. It isn’t just that the series balances actual joke set-ups with its onslaught of references, but that the hypocrisy of its characters and everything they’re making fun of is precisely what is being made fun of. It’s a show that wants you to laugh with it rather than at it. When Cole Escola plays an insane twink and Shakina Nayfack spends her on-screen time being a trans truther (with never-ending “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” gags), they still manage to have some humanity within the caricature. As much as Bros wants us to believe in its romantic arc and its two leading men, it’s hard to do that when they both don’t amount to anything more than jokes instead of real people. 

Bros is a film that is content to be up its own ass and a leading man (and co-creator) who will continue to spend every waking hour reminding us how important he and his film are. It’s a film that’s just as desperate to be loved and seen as important as its protagonist and there are many audiences and critics alike who will validate that need for adoration. That desperation is a large part of what makes Bros as tiresome as it is. That and the fact that it isn’t anywhere near as funny as any of the great queer romcoms of the 1990s and beyond, from The Birdcage and The Wedding Banquet to Kissing Jessica Stein and But I’m A Cheerleader. In proclaiming its historic importance, Bros seems to forget that these films—despite featuring straight actors—have left an indelible mark on queer people everywhere. Whatever you may think about who made them and who starred in them, they’ve already proved their worth and importance.

Whether or not the mediocrity that is Bros can manage to last beyond its buzzy press tour and make any real mark in the history of queer cinema is something that only time will tell.♦

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