CHICAGO - LGBTQ+ people have helped to make romantic comedy the important, influential movie genre that it is, both on screen (often as comic relief, or the lead’s best friend) and off, by buying tickets and championing new classics. Yet all too rarely are queer people the ones actually falling in love on-screen, getting their hearts broken and patching things up with a grand romantic gesture. With "Bros," which arrived in theaters on Sept. 30, co-writer, producer and star Billy Eichner hopes to change all that.
Eichner’s new film, produced by comedy titan Judd Apatow and directed by co-screenwriter Nicholas Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), is being billed as the first mainstream gay romantic comedy to receive a wide theatrical release. Other gay rom-coms exist, of course — a fact Eichner was quick to acknowledge in an interview with FOX Television Stations — but they’ve often been sidelined to the indie circuit or streamers, as with Joel Kim Booster’s "Fire Island," which was released straight to Hulu earlier this year.
Seated alongside costar Luke Macfarlane (who plays Eichner’s love interest Aaron), the "Billy on the Street" star explained that making "Bros," was like walking a tightrope: He had to make a rom-com specific to the gay experience, while also welcoming straight audiences to the party.
(from left) Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) and Bobby (Billy Eichner) in Bros, co-written, produced and directed by Nicholas Stoller. Photo Credit: K.C. Bailey/Universal Pictures
"My focus was, ‘let’s make the funniest movie we can make, but also a movie that is authentic, that is honest," said Eichner. "In the rare occasions we get gay characters, [the creators are] often walking on eggshells."
Some indie or streaming films avoid that tension, but the bright spotlight shining on "Bros" thanks to its wide release added an extra element of pressure.
Stoller and Apatow, who Eichner noted are "both straight men, married with kids, leading very heteronormative lifestyles," helped him navigate that tension.
"There were some times I was like, ‘Is this too much? Do you guys understand this?’" Eichner said; he described the pair as great sounding boards, who were ready to let him know when to make things clearer (but "not less authentic") for straight audience members who may not be up on the lingo (and other elements of gay culture).
"Nick and Judd always said, ‘honesty is the best policy’ — the audience can feel when it’s being lied to, and they can feel when something’s coming from a real place. And if ["Bros"] is eye-opening for straight audiences, then that’s what’s part of the fun for them."
(from left) Tamara (Eve Lindley), Robert (Jim Rash), Cherry (Dot-Marie Jones), Wanda (Miss Lawrence), Bobby (Billy Eichner) and Angela (Ts Madison) in Bros, co-written, produced and directed by Nicholas Stoller. Photo Credit: Nicole Rivelli/Universal
Another challenge for Eichner: Writing a mainstream queer rom-com from a place of privilege at a time when representation is an ongoing and vital conversation. Eichner doesn’t ignore this tension in "Bros." Quite the opposite, in fact: His character receives the "Cis White Gay Man of the Year" award, and many of his queer castmates are trans and nonbinary people of color.
Like his character, Eichner wrestled with how to set his story underneath that broader queer umbrella. "It’s a lot to navigate," he admitted; "The LGBTQ community is [...] dealing with its own internal issues, and straight people are just like, ‘Oh, LGBTQ! You’re all one big thing! And we’re here to support you!’"
And as a cis white gay man ("no one’s proud of it," Eichner joked), his primary focus was writing an authentic screenplay rooted in his own experiences: "All I could do is write a story that I could tell with nuance and authenticity and specificity. And while the story isn’t identical to my story, it is very much drawn from my real life, and that’s the life I know."
In doing so, he followed the old adage of "write what you know," while incorporating a host of other performers from the LGBTQ community — whom Eichner stressed "are all hilarious and all deserving of movies of their own." And if "Bros" does well at the box office, he pointed out, it might make the powers that be in Hollywood realize that "funny really is funny, straight people will show up for this," which will hopefully lead to "more movies like this from different perspectives."
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Of course, no rom-com is complete without a love interest. This meant finding right person to play the deceptively intelligent Aaron, a hunky dreamboat Bobby chooses to "be emotionally unavailable together" with. Enter Luke Macfarlane.
(from left) Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) and Bobby (Billy Eichner) in Bros, co-written, produced and directed by Nicholas Stoller. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
"I read the script and immediately identified with Aaron," Macfarlane told FOX Television Stations. "He has a lot of the same issues that I think I’ve struggled with from being a guy of the same age."
When he got into the audition room, sparks flew from his first line to Eichner: "You look angry."
"The rest is history," Eichner said.
Macfarlane’s physicality was also key in playing gymrat Aaron, an element of the story that leads "Bros" to some of its most interesting moments. This is a rom-com that makes time to explore body image and masculinity, and the related double standards and pitfalls of mainstream gay male dating culture.
"We’re all complicated people, we’re all hypocritical inside," Eichner explained. " We’re all confident some days, insecure other days. Some days we think we’re gorgeous, some days we think we’re ugly. We all feel that way, no matter how the world perceives us.
"For my generation of gay men — I think it’s getting better in younger generations — but the concept of masculinity was something we really obsessed over. Like, ‘It’s okay to be gay, but I want to be masculine.’"
"And by the way, that applies to straight male culture as well," Macfarlane noted, and when Eichner began listing the kind of masculinity society tends to place on a pedestal ("Look at action movies, or athletes"), Macfarlane brought up a key element of the ongoing conversation around body image: "Instagram."
"It’s not only gay guys showing off on Instagram," added Eichner; "it’s a lot of straight guys giving you their workout routine, right? Pumped full of god knows what supplements to get them there. And we’re all kind of judging it, but also secretly drawn to it. It’s complicated."
(from left) Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) and Bobby (Billy Eichner) in Bros, co-written, produced and directed by Nicholas Stoller. Photo Credit: Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures
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But the changes Eichner hopes will result from his film aren’t all so lofty. When asked what movie genre gay people should break into next, his answer reflects that: "I think [Aaron] would like to be a gay action star," Eichner said. "That’s not my thing. But I would love it for him."
"Bros" is now in theaters everywhere. Rated R. 115 minutes. Dir: Nicholas Stoller. Featuring: Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Ts Madison, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Díaz, Guy Branum, Amanda Bearse, Symone.
About the writer: Clint Worthington is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, and a Senior Writer at Consequence. You can find his other work at Vulture, Nerdist, RogerEbert.com, and elsewhere.
Make it a double feature with "10 Truths About Love," streaming free on Tubi
10 Truths About Love (2022): Camilla Belle stars as Carina Franklin, a thriving romance columnist who has her own love life totally figured out — at least until her longtime boyfriend dumps her. Even worse, her editor insists on giving her column a "male perspective" and hires a writer named Liam (David Lafontain) to balance her out. When the two new co-workers clash, Liam sets out to demonstrate that his tactics work by helping Carina win back her ex. Of course, in trying to prove each other wrong, Liam and Carina might just realize how right they really are for each other. "10 Truths About Love" is a Tubi Original. Rated TV-14. 90 minutes. Dir: Brian K. Roberts. Featuring: Camilla Belle, David Lafontaine, Jennifer De Lucia, Karn Kalra, Paula Rivera, David Keeley.
How to watch "Bros"
"Bros" is now in theaters nationwide. It is not currently available to stream.
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