Billy Eichner’s Witty Gay Rom-Com Works [TIFF]

Jan 13, 2023

TORONTO – Contrary to popular belief, there have been more gay romantic comedy movies than you might think. Many of them were released independently, and a few even by the mini-majors (Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Classics, etc.). You can even argue that studio releases such as “Too Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything” or “The Birdcage” qualified as rom-coms to some degree. Granted, those examples were released decades ago. Taking all that into account, however, you can absolutely make the case there has never been an R-rated gay romantic comedy like Universal Studios’ “Bros.” We’ll give the star and co-writer Billy Eichner that, for sure.
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The story is a classic “opposites attract” romance. Eichner plays Bobby, a popular 40-year-old podcaster who is eternally single. He’s out one night at a New York City club when he locks eyes with Aaron, played by Luke Macfarlane. Bobby gets the lowdown on Aaron from his good friend Henry (Guy Branum, the biggest scene-stealer in the movie), who describes him as one of the dumb, overly pumped-up gays who are only into other dumb, overly pumped-up gays (you can tell this film definitely caveats what it needs to for a straight audience because most people would refer to Aaron as a “circuit” gay who attends muscle filled gay circuit parties around the world, but I digress..). But then, much to Bobby’s surprise, Aaron is suddenly standing right next to him. Aaron turns out to be a fan of Bobby’s podcast, and they seem to hit it off with Bobby flirting with him in a self-deprecating way. And then Aaron disappears. This annoys Bobby, who confronts Aaron, who is planning on hooking up with another muscle couple (i.e., a three-way for those playing at home). Bobby wants to know if Aaron was actually into him or just playing some sort of game. Aaron says he’s not into relationships. Bobby says he isn’t either, and they go their separate ways. Well, at least for the moment.
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The next day Aaron messages Bobby, and their romantic dance begins. They hang out but insist they are just friends. They screw around but are not dating. They are not a couple until…they are. Slowly, but surely, they break down each other’s defenses. And it seems like it might just turn out to be an unexpected happy ending until the expected conflict arrives in the third act (frankly, a bit late). Because there has to be a hiccup, right?
While the romance is bubbling, each of them has their own work issues to deal with. Bobby, who is something of a “gay celebrity” (in many ways like Eichner, because, well, he seems to be playing a character close to himself), is a key member on the board for a planned LGBTQ+ museum. He’s joined by the looking-for-respect bi-sexual (Jim Rash), the black transwoman who barely has patience for this group’s drama (TS Madison), the femme queen who “makes room” for everyone (Miss Lawrence), and the lesbian fixated on the lack of recognition for Lesbian History month (Dot Marie-Jones), among others (and all of them have their moments). Bobby has to navigate the priorities of each representative of the community while hunting for that last $5 million grant for the museum to open its doors. Oh, and battle the donors over that Abraham Lincoln gay love letters exhibit.
Aaron, on the other hand, is a successful probate lawyer and simply hates sending his days dealing with rich people’s wills. In reality, he’d love to fulfill his dream of being a chocolatier, but then he’d have to confront teenage trauma tied to it (trust, it makes sense in context). Things get more confusing when his high school crush and former hockey teammate comes out late in life and moves to the city. Yes, there’s genuine competition for his wandering eye in the midst.
Each character endures a lot of minor narrative quibbles, often featuring a ton of genuinely funny cameos (which we won’t spoil here), but the movie really comes down to whether these two very different men can find love together. Moreover, will they even open themselves up to the possibility? The tone of the film makes it clear what you’re signing up for early on; the question is how it all will work out in the end.

For some viewers (especially gay ones), it will be hard to believe that Eichner and Macfarlane’s characters would both fall in love with each other. They are certainly an atypical couple in the gay world, but maybe for straight audiences, that’s less of a stretch. If Meg Ryan could fall for Billy Crystal or Jason Segal could marry Emily Blunt, maybe Eichner and Macfarlane aren’t so difficult to picture finding true happiness. Unlike those other cinematic romances, however, Eichner’s Bobby is very self-aware of how different they are perceived in the gay social construct. But you’re certainly rooting for them.
Eichner, er, Bobby also constantly makes fun of films such as “Brokeback Mountain” or “Philadelphia,” both of which had two straight identifying actors in the lead roles, which is a key difference in “Bros.” Almost every actor on screen is queer-identifying, and some of those actors, such as Jai Rodriguez and Guillermo Diaz, are actually playing straight characters. Like much of Eichner’s comedy, the film is filled with zingers and jabs poking fun at just how uneven the portrayal of LGBTQ+ people has been handled by Hollywood. And, frankly, despite its very studio trappings (even the gay club scenes look like how a studio would shoot a gay club scene), he doesn’t care if it goes over a general audience’s head or not. It’s one of the rare outwardly radical aspects of the film you wish it had a wee bit more of.
The film is directed by a straight-identifying director, Nicholas Stoller, who has made his mark with movies such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Neighbors.” And Stoller, who approached Eichner with the idea for making a gay rom-com, is up for pushing R-rated boundaries. There are some genuinely funny and humorous sex scenes, and, for the most part, the film does a great job of ensuring the audience isn’t laughing at its subjects as opposed to laughing along with them. But, as it goes along, there is a sense of something missing, especially in the latter half of the picture. You wish the film had a slightly more queer eye behind the camera (yes, that’s a genuine thing, Andrew Ahn’s “Fire Island” is an excellent recent example). Even for a major studio production, it might have helped. But if everyone around you is laughing, maybe it doesn’t matter. It probably means another “Bros” gets made, which, hey, wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. [B]
“Bros” opens nationwide on Sept. 30
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