Bros (2022)

Longtime readers of the site will know that I’m not just a writer who likes to amble through my reviews, but that I like to preamble them, too. It’s one of the various little tricks that one might pick up at the Royal Baton Rouge Academy of Writing Tricks, or from watching too many video essays of widely varying quality on YouTube. Instead of just beginning this post with “Bros is very funny” and then going into a listing of some of contributors to its existence as a filmic product that you might want to go and see, I’ll throw a bunch of pieces of  seemingly unrelated information at you that will, if I do my unpaid job correctly, make sense as all of the ideas flowing through me coalesce over the course of the essay: the number of times that I saw the trailer for Colossal, the mockery that I once endured for sharing information I had recently read about Abraham Lincoln’s possible bisexuality with a friend in high school, David O. Russell, Maggie Fish’s most recent video essay, and everyone’s favorite topic, Twitter discourse. Fun fact: in grad school, one of my professors told me that they got the impression that I just sat down and started writing with no plan, and they were right! They also once sent me an email in response to my soft inquiry about a PhD program letter of recommendation with the advice that I should really start with professors who gave me an “A” first. 

Anyway, a little bit further ado: of late, when I tell people about the movies that I’ve been seeing, there are those who want to talk to me about the text itself, and those who know more about The Discourse. (For those who might be interested, Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer hated Don’t Worry Darling.) Bros was undoubtedly doomed to be part of The Discourse, not just because of the film’s content, but because of its polarizing and contentious star, Billy Eichner. For the uninitiated, Mr. Eichner is a comedian whose first big break was on Fuse’s Billy on the Street, in which a tall, sassy gay man wandered NYC and handed money to people he encountered for answering pop culture trivia questions, sort of like a Cash Cab for pedestrians. What made the show work was the interaction between a flamboyant host who could best be described as a “bitter theatre kid” and the people he encountered and his “man-on-the-street” interviews with them; that having been said, live unplanned interactions are always a gamble, especially in a place like New York. Not everybody who is out and about in the world is going to want to play with you, and although it’s part and parcel of this kind of content that it’s partially about catching people off guard and pushing them towards (not out of the edge) of their comfort zones, there are also going to be people who just don’t want to participate, and part of being good at that job is recognizing those signs. Notably, one interaction that I’m shocked made it to air was one in which Billy continues to hassle a single mother of four about her lack of interest in La La Land, repeating the name of the movie and the phrase “it has Oscar buzz” over and over again until he sounds like he’s talking gibberish. You can watch it here with some commentary tweets below. On the Street was still in production not that long ago, but I doubt this would be put on television in 2022; it assumes that we the viewership will find the interviewee to be unreasonable and “crazy” because she eventually tells Billy off, but after watching Billy continue to engage a woman who’s clearly trying to be left alone about something as vanilla as La La Land, we’re on her side. At least I am. From there, Eichner had a recurring role on Parks & Rec and then co-headlined the Hulu sitcom Difficult People for a few years, although I mostly know him from his appearances on American Horror Story

We’ll circle back around about Billy. In the meantime, the synopsis: Bobby Lieber (Eichner) is a podcaster who has everything but love. He has a dream Manhattan apartment, is the incumbent recipient of an LGBTQ+ award, will soon be the curator for the city’s first LGBTQ+ museum, etc. This is most obvious in his group of friends, which includes his lady best friend and her husband as well as two gay couples: one has just learned from their surrogate that they will be having triplets, and the other has just announced that they’re expanding to a throuple, while Bobby drifts from one empty sexual encounter with anonymous Grindr torsos to another, trying and failing to convince himself that he prefers it this way. At a club, he has a chance encounter with a handsome gym bunny named Aaron (Luke Macfarlane). The two flirt and Billy Bobby self-deprecates and makes no real secret that he expected Aaron to be an ignorant meathead, but they charm each other nonetheless. They flirt and kiss, but Aaron disappears – his fast, Batman-like offscreen exits an early indicator of his fear of commitment. From there, all of the normal romcom stations-of-the-canon stuff happens, with the early miscommunications, the bumps in the road, the familial warmth and swelling this-could-be-the-one-ness that precede the Act 2 complication, said Act 2 complication, etc. You’ve seen one of these before, I’m sure. If you’re anything like me, then at the point in the movie when things start to seem like they’re going well, you start to wonder when the other shoe is going to drop: Who’s going to be tempted? Is someone going to cheat? It does seem to be leading in that direction when Aaron’s old hockey teammate from when they were in high school comes out of the closet and he and Aaron are flirting at a holiday party, but since this isn’t When Harry Met Sally or whatever, they just have group sex. Instead, it’s a visit from Aaron’s family that shakes up the dynamic, as Aaron asks Bobby to be a little less himself around them, and when there’s a disagreement at dinner about education, Aaron also overreacts. The two part ways and Aaron is caught with his old teammate in a compromising position, and so we get our big mid-film break. 

Here’s the thing about Eichner. He’s not a bad actor. He is, however, a branded one, and his brand, for better or for worse, is comedy that is caustic, acerbic, and confrontational, regardless of the role. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to break out of that mold, either, and create (or at least try to create) something with a little more gravitas and seriousness. There are several sections of this film in which Bobby opens up about how being gay created barriers for him, and how hard it is to break through societal boundaries to find success in a world that devalues you while still being your true self with all of that criticism and negativity internalized, even from people that you love. The more traditionally masculine Aaron admires Bobby’s confidence to live without concerns about how others perceive him, which is at the root of his commitment issues, while Bobby has convinced himself that he can’t rely on anyone but himself, which is the source of his. To me, Eichner sells these scenes, but I know that won’t be the case for everyone. First of all, you’re automatically not going to see this if you’re a dumb ding-dong who sees a black mermaid or a gay rom-com and fly into a rage because you’ve been trained like one of Pavlov’s dogs to froth at the mouth when you see extremely cynical corporate media schemes masquerading as progressive media because your master taught you to bark woke woke instead of woof woof. When I watched these scenes, Bobby was talking about me; I heard my own experiences and the experiences of so many that I know. For some people, failing to empathize with Bobby would be a moral failing because the American audience is composed of a lot of people who completely lack empathy for those who are different from themselves. For others, the extent to which you can empathize with Bobby is going to be based on how much you’re able to empathize with Billy, which for a lot of people is not very much. And I don’t blame you, because that’s his brand: the dance partner he came with and the horse he rode in – his acidity. Like Nathan Fielder and Tom Green, he has a public persona that blurs the line between reality and character. On that front, the movie worked for me, but I don’t begrudge that it might not work for others. 

Recently, Magge Mae Fish put out the second part of her series about The Hero with a Thousand Faces author Joseph Campbell; in particular, this one covers Campbell’s troubling dismissal of contemporary criticism of the Nazis (for those needing to peg this to a specific time frame, Campbell was Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College from 1934 to 1972, and Hero was published in 1949). In the video, Fish succinctly summarizes an important point about cultural criticism that is forever being missed (or in the cases of intentional right wing con artistry, intentionally suppressed): many cultural commentators look around themselves at a highly managed garden of “canonical” literature and scholarship and treat that space as if they have entered an inherently natural, unguided forest of discourse. That is to say, they would walk out into a metaphorical yard with perfectly trimmed grass, a man-made picnic table, and highly curated flower beds and begin to examine it and make judgments about the “natural” “world” based upon something which is almost entirely the result of deliberate cultivation – and pruning. This is a vital part of understanding our entire world and the way that the machinery of power operates: for centuries, the gatekeepers of Western academia suppressed any literature that was not explicitly pro-Christianity (Catholic or Protestant, whichever was in vogue at the time), male-focused, male-created, European-curated, and heterosexually-dominated, and then looked around at the patriarchal, white, heteronormative, messianic text that was left behind and deemed what they saw to be the platonic ideal of art. Religion is the same; politics are the same. Regressives will look at the rise of equality and egalitarianism and are threatened by it, call it wokeness and decry it without realizing how absurd they look while doing so, because to them, maintaining the status quo of a manicured lawn gives them power, even if calling it “the natural order” is a pathetically transparent lie. 

That suppression of non-mainstream ideas is inextricable from larger cultural repression over time, and it’s text and metatext with regards to Bros. While announcing the opening of the museum, Bobby projects an image from the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two ancient Egyptians who were buried together and whose images are intertwined with one another in the same visual language as other depictions of intimate relationships in art of the same era. Even the editorial tone of the introduction of the Wikipedia page about the couple that states “They are notable for their unusual depiction in Egyptian records, often interpreted as the first recorded same-sex couple, a claim that has met considerable debate” [emphasis added] is sneering, a microcosm of how all queer scholarship is treated in larger circles. That’s part of the point of the use of the image in the movie: queer art has been burnt, buried, and obscured, and the lack of it in our society is not a reflection of a lack of queer history (or a sudden explosion in queer people as part of some some bizarre conspiracy theory), but its suppression. That’s the whole reason that you and I were never taught that Abraham Lincoln was probably bisexual based on his own writings, and why people are in such intense deinal of the possibility and the evidence in favor of understanding the man through that lens, including my otherwise very smart high school classmate. If the world of the film and the world we live in was one in which this hadn’t happened, there wouldn’t be a need for an LGBTQ+ museum, because queer people would already rightfully be recognized as an integral part of all history, not some derivation from the norm that needs its own special space – and there also wouldn’t be a need for Bros, because queer audiences would have always had gay (and bi, and pan) romcoms alongside the deluge of Runaway Brides, Pretty Women, French Kisses, and You’ve Got Mail…ses. In short, culture at large has such “they were roommates” goggles with regards to queer history that even when some bit slips through the cracks, it’s easier for people with pitifully limited critical thought and lackluster imagination to conclude that gay people suddenly sprang into existence in the Twentieth Century and that any statement to the contrary is libtarded revisionism. 

When texting about the movie with my friend, he said I’m not mad at straight people for not paying money to go see a gay romcom.” And that’s a perfectly reasonable point of view, especially because Eichner can be such a polarizing figure, but I don’t blame him for being mad about his art failing to reach people. A part of me thinks that maybe we should be mad, and the only thing holding me back is that defending the perfectly good—but not necessarily great—Bros just isn’t the artistic hill I want to die on. For one thing, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making a film where every single person in the cast, even those playing presumably straight people, were queer (other than celebrities playing themselves, like Debra Winger), but the discourse online isn’t led by rationale and empathy, it’s already weighted in favor of pseudo-intellectual  self-described “public thinker” con artists (and their bots, disciples, and disciple bots) stoking indignation in an ignorant populace. Because Eichner made a movie with an all queer cast, this film was fighting from the start against the same reactionaries who respond to announcements that such-and-such organization is specifically looking to recruit a certain quota of people from this-or-that group of people who didn’t win the privilege lottery with frothing screaming that NASA is too woke now or that they’re cancelling their Sports Illustrated subscription because curvy women don’t get their dicks hard. They are not the majority (if they were, they wouldn’t be so angry or trying so hard to turn back time*), but they are the loudest and most noticeable voices. 

*They don’t want to turn time back too much, of course. The Jordan Petersons of the world want to return to a very specific time of European white domination of culture, when women looked like Betty Draper because they weren’t allowed to hold positions of power and when they complained about it doctors doped them up with amphetamines. If Peterson had a public meltdown because he couldn’t get off to Yumi Nu, he really wouldn’t want to live in a time when beauty standards skewed more Venus of Willendorf and Venus of Dolní Věstonice than Venus Pudica. Remember, to them, “tradition” means “whatever I want, regardless of history.” 

I don’t blame a creator for getting frustrated that there’s no way to know how successful their comedy would have been if it weren’t for straight up bigotry. And further, that as a minority creator, knowing that you have to succeed and failing is an injustice all its own. When my friend that I was texting with about the movie told me that he was specifically turned off by Billy’s tweets, he sent me a screenshot of one message in which Eichner had written “Even with glowing reviews […] straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up for [Bros]. And that’s disappointing but it is what it is.” I don’t look at that and see a temper tantrum, but it is an unavoidable fact that, because of the brand that Eichner has built for himself, many people will, rather than an earnest expression of frustration against a system of inequality through the lens of someone seeing it in the trenches, their work being riddled with bullets. When I went searching for those tweets in order to link to them, I discovered that they had been deleted, but one of the words I searched for in Eichner’s archive while looking was “Universal,” which led me to a link to this Deadline article announcing production on the film. When I first went to that page, the very top article that appeared on the trending sidebar was this one, about the box office disappointments of David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, and “What This Means For Upscale Movies.” Russell’s history of abuse of his cast and crew is legendary, but he still gets to distance himself from his failures despite the fact that maybe nobody wants to go see this guy who was abusive on a set in a movie directed by this fucking asshole. The deck is always stacked, in the entertainment industry and in life, to allow for men like Russell to fail over and over again and blame everything but the director while the Olivia Wildes and the Eichners of the world are told that the failure of their art to penetrate a system that has been manicured and cultivated to keep them out is the fault not only of their art but of themselves. 

None of that will ever really sit right with me, but it’s also true that this movie didn’t reach gay audiences, either, and not just because (as in the case of my friend referenced above) Eichner’s public persona has made him seem unlikable. Within the actual text of the film, there’s a much larger discussion about intersectionality than the marketing, which focuses almost entirely on the romance between the two conventionally attractive white male leads, lets on. Bobby has a fat friend, but he’s not an integral part of the story, and I would be much more willing to write an angry letter of protest on his behalf if one or both of the male leads had more profound problems than “I’m trapped in a glass case of toxic masculinity” and “I hook up with hot guys on Grindr but not, like, circuit queen hot.” The truth, whether he wants to admit it or not, is that Eichner has really only reached this level of success because he actually mostly conforms to Eurocentric beauty norms. If it were someone who looked like Bruce Villanch up there on the screen getting rammed by Luke Macfarlane, this movie (a) wouldn’t be made at all, and (b) some of this backlash would look less… personal. And, of course, (c), every gay blog on earth that did a write-up of the movie would be riddled with “well actually” posts in the comments section that contain nothing but body-shaming under the false banner of medical concern; that’s not relevant to this particular discussion, but in case you didn’t know, it is depressingly omnipresent. I saw one tweet that mocked the movie for being about Eichner’s own image issues, since it can (reductively but not wholly inaccurately) be said to be about how not finding Billy Eichner attractive is a moral failing. And if my other friends who were so sick of seeing the trailer that they never wanted to see the film (like me with Colossal, since that came out during the height of my MoviePass usage) are anything to go by, that overexposure of the marketing to the people most likely to see it might have done more harm than good. 

So … Bros is very funny. I got a lot of good laughs out of it, had a lot of fun seeing a lot of unabashedly queer people yuck it up, and there was a country ballad at the end that made me tear up. And I know that there are a lot of people who would read that and be either utterly confused or irrationally angry, but at the end of the day, it’s the truth. Even if you’re not queer, when this comes to rental, maybe throw some dollars its way, so in ten years time, we can get a truly, loudly, unconventional queer movie in mainstream theaters, just in time for all the crops to fail. See you next time! 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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