“Bros,” the latest romantic comedy to hit theaters, is absolutely revolutionary. And totally conventional. It’s a film where both extremes can be true at the same time.
The revolutionary part comes from it being the first gay rom-com produced and distributed by a major American studio. And yet it hews very closely to the classic rom-com formula, right down to one of the star-crossed lovers suddenly realizing he’s in love and sprinting to reunite with the other as music swells.
That’s the genius of “Bros” — telling LGBTQ stories and wrapping it in a familiar storyline that everyone can relate to. At one point, we see our hero watching “When Harry Met Sally” and we quietly cheer as the universe of rom-coms just got another satellite. Some people may complain that it fits too neatly into the straight-people film formula, but revolutions weren’t built in a movie.
Billy Eichner stars as Bobby Lieber, a slightly nerdy gay podcaster-turned-museum executive who has hit the age of 40 without having had a serious romantic relationship. The script by Nicholas Stoller and Eichner leans into the shtick Eichner has built as a loud, opinionated comic on “Billy on the Street” but creates room for a wounded, insecure hero.
Eichner is navigating the fraught world of modern dating in the New York City gay community, which includes graceless app hookups, steroid use, dance-club ogling, legions of commitment-phobes and an emphasis on the physical and superficial — so just like straights!
When sparks fly between him and a hunky meathead — played understated and soulfully by Luke Macfarlane — it’s clear that opposites attract. Our hero has a sunken chest, an unwavering belief that Abraham Lincoln was a closeted gay man and a high voice; the muscly hunk is a fan of Garth Brooks, hockey and “The Office.” Yet he can also see to the core of our hero: “Getting angry at things is your brand,” he tells him.
The filmmakers make sure “Bros” isn’t a sanitized view of gay love, earning an R rating for nudity, sex, lusty kissing and group encounters like throuples and a very funny, awkward four-way with a random guy named Steve. In many parts, it feels very much like every lingering, passionate kiss is blissfully punching through some sort of wall.
Stoller, who also directs, and Eichner load the script with plenty of gentle humor at nongay targets. “Gay sex was more fun when straight people were uncomfortable,” says one character. And a couple of recurring gags involve straight actors winning awards for playing gay — Benedict Cumberbatch, look out! — and the Hallmark Channel’s supposed embrace of nonhetero themes, like with the fictional bisexual titles “Christmas With Either” and the group rom-com “A Holly, Polly Christmas.”
Gay stereotypes also get celebrated and pierced — endless voguing, Grindr photos, “Schitt’s Creek” love, Barbra Streisand adoration and internal divisions among the LGBTQ community. Deborah Messing from “Will & Grace” makes a hilarious cameo (“I am not every gay man’s best friend!” she wails) and Caitlin Jenner is mocked as a “trans-terrorist.” A key moment is when Eichner pierces the inclusive slogan “Love Is Love” with his retort “No, it’s not.” Gay love, he says, has different obstacles and complications and ramifications.
In his love affair, identity becomes the drama. Bobby is fiercely proud of being gay and not apologizing for it, while his love interest is more quiet about his sexuality, fatefully asking his lover to tone it down one night while meeting his parents. “A little less yourself,” he explains. “I want them to like you.” Everyone will understand what that means. That’s straight out of a John Hughes rom-com.
It’s not a perfect film — the first half sags a little, the jump in Bobby’s career is jarring and some soliloquies land with a thud — but name us a perfect rom-com. This one has what the best have: heart, good faith and good old-fashioned love. Welcome, “Bros,” to the canon.