Seven days before Bros premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Trace Lysette-starring Monica premiered at Venice. I worked on that film and was lucky enough to witness first-hand the achievement of Trace’s performance. She pushed herself to a rare place of vulnerability and truth, creating a human being out of a pointedly sparse script. The headlines focused on her being the first trans actress to lead a film at Venice.
Of course, that’s not true. Three years ago Isabel Sandoval was at Venice with Lingua Franca, a film she not only starred in but wrote and directed. But I guess Trace Lysette finally gets the role she deserves after years of transphobic Hollywood ignoring her talents and she should really be in Oscar conversations even though she won’t be just doesn’t have the same appeal to the masses as a first. Even when it isn’t true.
Much of the press around Nicholas Stoller’s new movie Bros has been about it as a first. The first gay rom-com from a major studio. The first movie from a major studio to have an all queer principle cast. Billy Eichner as the first gay man to co-write and star in a major studio rom-com. And then Eichner faced backlash when, speaking of the importance of this film, said, “This is not some streaming thing which feels disposable.”
Whether you like him or hate him, Eichner’s comment can be received with anger or grace. He’s not speaking of the quality of the indies that came before him, but rather their budgets, their release, their mainstream acceptance. Granted, I’m not sure it’s actually that much more mainstream in 2022 to have your movie at an AMC than it is to have it on Hulu. And I’m not sure it’s that much of a brag as a queer creator to say your movie was produced by Judd Apatow than it is to say it was directed by Andrew Ahn.
Billy Eichner is on a press tour. The publicists have chosen a narrative they believe will work to get the straight dollars they desire for their gay movie and Eichner is repeating those talking points. He is allowing the headline for his appearance on The View to be that Bros is a movie “for everyone.” You can be mad at him, but this is the industry, this is the job. Very few people get to just act, get to just write — especially when they have even the most mainstream of marginalized identities. Eichner seems aware of this off-screen and, more unfortunately, he seems aware of it in the film itself.
Bros is about a cis gay white male podcaster named Bobby Lieber who hosts a show called The Eleventh Brick. The joke is that trans people of color threw the first brick at Stonewall, but maybe a cis gay white man threw the eleventh. While a success at podcasting, Bobby is in the process of fulfilling his dream project — an LGBTQ+ history museum. (I wonder if the museum will cover that there was no “first brick” at Stonewall.) His ambitions in his professional life are countered with a total lack of ambition in his personal life. He has a good group of friends and plenty of Grindr hookups, but at 40 he has never been in a serious relationship and doesn’t care to try. Enter Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), a muscly estate lawyer easy for Bobby to dismiss — until he isn’t.
The good news is that Bros is hilarious. For its slightly too long runtime of two hours, I laughed and laughed and laughed. I was invested in its protagonist, cared about its central relationship, and was delighted by many of its gags — some literal. That’s more than I can say for the vast majority of rom-coms made these days and so, without a doubt, I’d call Bros a success. Straight rom-coms aren’t expected to properly evoke Marsha P. Johnson and gay rom-coms shouldn’t have to either — of course, it helps that straight rom-coms don’t try.
My frustration with the film is its attempt to be The First Gay Rom-Com instead of just being the first Billy Eichner rom-com. It succeeds so well at the latter, the attempts at the former feel even more out of place. Eichner has a specific background and a specific experience and when he genuinely grapples with that experience it works. For example, when he feels like he’s too flamboyant to be around Aaron’s parents and yet considered a bastion of privilege in the queer community at large. Mainstream acceptance of cis gay white people has happened extremely quickly — after years of struggle from the entire community — and there are interesting threads about Bobby holding onto past trauma even though he’s now primed for success.
This is then somewhat undermined whenever Eichner seems to be apologizing for his own voice. Repeatedly saying, “I know I know I’m a boring cis white gay man” can begin to feel less like an acknowledgement of privilege and more like a new kind of victimhood. Sometimes this feels like it’s part of Bobby’s voice and Bobby’s journey, other times it feels like Eichner’s voice and the film itself.
I love that the supporting cast is filled with a diverse selection of talented queer performers, but a lot of them aren’t given much to do and end up feeling out of place. Bobby’s best friend is played by Guy Branum, who is hilarious and perfect in the part, but then it’s strange that none of Bobby’s other friends are cis and white. It results in Bros having a queer world that is predominantly trans and POC — even if the white cis gay men are the only ones with real characters.
Bobby’s employees at his museum not being white and cis makes far more sense. But it still feels off that there are more transfeminine people than any other identity. I love seeing Ts Madison, Miss Lawrence, and Eve Lindley on-screen! The material they’re given just isn’t as good as the rest of the movie. The best jokes from these work scenes come from Jim Rash’s bisexual because Eichner and Stoller seem to know how to actually write him. Too often the jokes the trans characters get or Dot-Marie Jones as the resident lesbian gets (one lesbian?? are any of the trans characters lesbians too??) feel like Eichner just apologizing for his identity. The best apology would have been giving these performers funnier material.
Ultimately, I’m not going to a Billy Eichner rom-com — or any studio movie — expecting much for the trans characters. And while these forced attempts may grate, the movie succeeds at fulfilling its primary intentions. It wants to be a classic straight rom-com but make-it-gay and it does this to a fault. The press is about how it’s some groundbreaking achievement — and if your goal is mainstream acceptance, I guess it is — but it’s actually just a conventional rom-com with a few contrived plot beats and a lot of really good jokes.
Eichner may be pitching the movie as “for everyone” but to his credit it’s filled with gay sex and material that feels explicitly for gay people. Eichner has made a bid for mainstream acceptance and a bid for queer community acceptance in the same movie and neither bid seems to really work. It’s everything else that works so well. Billy Eichner is a loud faggot who got his start yelling at people on the streets of New York. He’s not for everybody, but he is for some of us. Like Bobby, his journey seems to still be accepting that full self.
The truest thing I can say about Bros is that it’s the first gay rom-com co-written by and starring Billy Eichner. The best thing I can say is I hope it’s not the last.