Throughout “Bros,” Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner) repeats, “Love is not love.” It’s an attempt to subvert the phrase that likened queer love to straight love in the struggle for queer liberation — a plea to focus on the specificities of being queer and deemphasize straightness as a barometer for comparison. The phrase emblematizes the film’s litany of aspirations, in which the film succeeds in writing complicated, nuanced queer characters, but falters amidst the acerbic critiques it juggles.
“Bros,” co-written by and starring comedian Billy Eichner, has been touted as Hollywood’s first major studio film to feature an entirely LGBTQ+ cast. In the movie, Eichner, in a vociferous variant of his public persona, is a prominent podcaster living in New York City who hosts a podcast on queer history called 11th Brick (because, as a cisgender white gay man, it’s the brick he’d probably have thrown had he been there), which grants him the profile to be appointed as the director of the first national queer history museum. While curating the opening exhibition for the museum, Bobby contemplates his forty-year-old singledom, his emotional unavailability and quotidian loneliness while receiving messages from men on Grindr who text, “Must see pics of ass.” His life changes when he meets Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), who is similarly emotionally unavailable but dissimilarly into Garth Brooks, has dreams of being a chocolatier and presents as hypermasculine. Soon enough, the two begin seeing each other; communication gaps abound, impersonal hook-ups turn intimate and the pair delve into each others’ interior lives.
Eichner and Nicholas Stoller’s script is not only often stingingly funny, but also frequently incisive. In its portrait of modern dating, the film deftly satirizes digitized messaging and the detached nature of hook-up culture, both generally and in queer-specific settings. Eichner and Stoller also skewer the contemporary commodification of queerness, from a Hallmark Channel parody producing films centered around queer and polyamorous couples to the modern “Queer Eye” reboot — particularly for its focus on relating to straightness. But one can’t help but wonder if the very structure of the romantic comedy itself, in addition to the movie’s other biting sensibilities, undercut this examination, and in some ways even replicate this notion.
Midway through “Bros,” Bobby and Aaron step out of a screening of a film about gay cowboys. As the two jab at the presumed heterosexuality of the movie’s lead actors, Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” is mentioned in the same breath, but only within the context of being a film straight people use to compare with other gay films.
The desire for candy-coated cinema that celebrates the joy and warmth in queer people’s lives (“Bros” also jabs at the film industry for its purportedly narrow focus on queer tragedy) is important. Distinct portraits of queer experience, made by queer filmmakers, is vital. But the movie’s inclination to paint LGBTQ+ film history with one brush — as tender, sorrowful and constructed entirely by straight people — is ironic considering the intertextual self-awareness of its novelty and its emphasis on spotlighting queer history. The mosaic of queer films that paved the way for “Bros” — with queer cinematic history spanning from indie comedies such as Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” and Jamie Babbit’s “But I’m a Cheerleader” to dramas such as James Ivory’s “Maurice” and Todd Haynes’s “Carol” — doesn’t seem to exist in the film’s world. Perhaps most trying about this particular commentary is how it reflects the erasure of the dominant, heteropatriarchal industry it critiques. For all of the film’s comedic charm and amusing drollery, this renders some of the caustic critiques the film constructs hollow.
Still, what Stoller and Eichner create in “Bros” is something novel, semisweet without being saccharine and surprisingly intricate. Eichner and Macfarlane’s characters are lovable because they are allowed the space to be messy and human, and amidst the grounded untidiness that informs the development of their connection, the modern dating space has perhaps never been captured better. It’s a gleaming example of what the romantic comedy can be — cynical yet hopeful, hilarious yet tender, and most important of all, palpably romantic.