After 120 years, give or take, Hollywood finally has a mainstream queer rom-com answer to films like Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” Hell, it’s taken just as long to make a mainstream LGBTQ movie that isn’t about pain and suffering or trauma or systemic homophobia. Enter screenwriter/star Billy Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller’s “Bros,” a snarky, fitfully raunchy meet-cute for the age of Grindr (or here, a dating app cheekily called Zellweger).
The actual breaking of ground is that the cast is top-to-toe gay, gay, gay… and that’s pretty much where it stops. The screenplay’s contours are broadly conventional, but that’s a good thing. When we talk about wanting to be seen, a lot of us really mean that what we want is a gay version of our ’90s rom-coms when the genre was at its best. “Bros” fits the bill.
Fusing his manic “Billy on the Street” persona with the more self-deprecating misanthrope of his brilliant Hulu series “Difficult People,” Eichner plays rapier-witted, chronically single podcast host Bobby Leiber. The movie immediately calls attention to its own narrow window of privilege in the film’s opening scenes when Bobby receives the award for “Cis White Gay Man of the Year.” Bobby is beloved for his unsentimental insights on queer culture; he is no “love is love is love” or “it gets better” dispeller of maudlin pearls. “Love is not love,” he says at one point. “Gay men are different.”
Indeed, that launches “Bros” into its rather canny depiction of the lonely, cyclical particulars of gay male single life in the 21st century, the “Hey, what’s up?” that’s texted back and forth ad nauseam without either party executing action — or, the hookup begins and you’re instantly underwhelmed by the man at the door who’s peeling off his shirt before he makes eye contact.
Bobby is one of those chronic dating app users. He’s pessimistic about his prospects, but hides his loneliness as the self-appointed authority on gay hookups and dating in the contemporary world. All of that falls out of orbit when the muscly, exceptionally clean-cut proto-daddy Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) drops into view. Bobby appears totally of his depth while dancing/flailing one night at a club and meets-cute with Aaron, seemingly echelons out of his league.
To Bobby, Aaron is but a slab of vanilla man-candy who holds a dismal but successful career managing wills and estates. Somehow, the unlikely pair sparks, and provides hope — not for the misanthropes like Bobby, who aren’t perfect 10s but land someone as dreamy as Aaron, but for those like Aaron, who seem remote and untouchable but end up surprising you.
As they move from lust into something like love, the movie makes an unfussy show about the particular messy politics of gay sex. A scene in which Aaron asks Bobby to top him is sexy and touching. Other signposts of the gay experience include a trip to Provincetown that springs more than a few cheeky cameos, the threesomes and foursomes, and the eventual question of opening up the relationship.
Things take a darker turn here, but “Bros” is very much interested in being a rom-com with a happy ending rather than something edgier. That’s by design, as Eichner has firmly said he was not trying to make an “indie” film here. This is a big, glossy Hollywood package in mainstream clothes — even despite the gay sex, which isn’t especially graphic in any sense.
Eichner, who wrote the script with Stoller, has an ear for talky New York dialogue, and there are moments here that teeter into Woody Allen-land as the city emerges as more character than backdrop, and one that comes more vibrantly to life as Aaron and Bobby start to fall in love in it. Cinematographer Brandon Trost applies more visual sense than you’d come to expect from the genre, which often foregrounds content over form. Eichner’s gay homage to the great American romcoms of yesterday looks and feels exactly like them, and that’s groundbreaking enough. We’ll take that any day over a movie that tries too hard to pander to gay audiences. This one just hears and sees us.
“Bros” world-premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will open from Universal Pictures on September 30.