Wednesday 9 November 2022

Exhibition: "Bros"

It's now clear the marketing tactic of trumpeting
Bros as the first studio romcom with openly gay leads backfired spectacularly. The straights - to be more specific, the homophobes and non-curious - were sent fleeing; gay viewers, meanwhile, were pushed into analysing what this notionally totemic picture said about them, and were broadly indifferent to what they saw. I caught up with Nicholas Stoller's film in its second week on release, by which time it had been relegated to a (very) light smattering of lunchtime matinees, which can't possibly have been its creators' intention: does representation really count if you're representing to six people shuffling Greggs bags while checking their phones? The issue, I think, wasn't the representation per se, but the trumpeting, which feels self-satisfied at best, and is to some degree built-in. Writer-star Billy Eichner is best known for a series of viral videos in which he shouts at New Yorkers on the street, and to this viewer as the point at which TV's Parks & Recreation upped the volume and lowered its quality control. He starts out here yammering at 70mph, as Bobby, mouthy host of an LGBTQ-themed podcast, and rarely dials back anything thereafter. "You're very intense," observes his chiselled sweetheart Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), which is the polite word for it. And all this is just in the film's early stages: by the conclusion, a plot hike is offering us some jolting idea of what Billy Eichner might look and sound like on steroids.

The agitation central to Eichner's screen persona seeps rapidly into a film that already appears more than a little unrelaxed, so tangled up is it with the burden of satisfying hopes and expectations, and the trickiness of balancing fragile personal truth with the crushing demands of cinematic commerce. We join Billy-as-Bobby as he's appointed head of a trust overseeing New York's first LGBTQ museum, and the workplace scenes, which stand as some of the liveliest in the film, involve an ongoing discussion with fellow board members (including Community's Jim Rash and Glee's Dot-Marie Jones) as to the direction key exhibits should take - in other words, who to represent, and how to represent them. When Bobby and Aaron start dating, it's to movies that prompt discussions of the movies that came before; there are variably affectionate takedowns of Brokeback Mountain (straight actors play sad and gay), Bohemian Rhapsody (for framing a gay icon in terms of his heterosexual dalliances) and those recent cable TV movies skewed towards the pink pound. Nobody on screen gets any time off from thinking about gay representation - it may be the first romcom where the protagonist's heartache is secondary to what's weighing on his mind. And so we start to feel the stress, too. One of the reasons Bros doesn't wholly seduce as romantic comedy is that it never allows us to relax the way even a midranking hetero romcom like You've Got Mail did. That film is glimpsed in passing here, still blithely removed of any such representational burdens, its characters free to be and love. By contrast, there aren't enough poppers in New York for Bros, which comes over as clenched when it's not chaotic; even with its (quite funny) Debra Messing cameo, it's all will, no grace.

Much of that stress can be traced back to Eichner himself, who's written a series of monologues for the other performers to fleetingly interrupt - a break from the tradition of producer Judd Apatow, whose best comedies (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People) have been essentially democratic in their methods. This is mature Eichner, which means he's saddened by the scene he overlooks from a nightclub balcony, and disdainful of the generations partying in his wake (a nice, tart line: "We had AIDS, they had Glee"). But his self-pity is harder to take than Woody Allen's must have been when the latter was reinventing the hetero romcom at the tail end of the 1970s. You understand all too easily why the abrasive and irascible Bobby keeps being blocked on Grindr, and it has nothing to do with the quality of his ass pics. Bros works best whenever it wriggles out of the chokehold of tribal responsibility (even the film's jolliest sex scene involves wrestling) to present as just jokes. Some of these are scene-specific: I liked the idea of Zellwegr, a dating app where users gather to talk about actresses before going to sleep. Many more are blessed with pansexual comedy nous: a TV movie aimed at bisexuals called "Christmas with Either", a gender-reveal orgy, talk of a sex-positive Tiny Tim. (Novel, funny ideas, wherever you sit on the Kinsey scale.) And Eichner is plainly engaged on some level with the ins and outs of gay history - what's come before - in a way that feels valuable and educative. There are more references to Stonewall than I can remember there ever being in a romcom, and a cameo for Harvey Fierstein, who - in his current, silver-haired incarnation - really ought to be playing Ursula in Disney's upcoming live-action Little Mermaid redo.

But the movie keeps circling back to its own hang-ups, and to a central relationship that forever feels like Eichner's fantasy, as a slightly schlubby fortysomething, of finding an adoring, endlessly supportive young hunk to stand by him while he gets his shit together. It boils down to the exact same flaw that's sunk so many straight-leaning romcoms in recent times, including several prominent examples from the Apatow school. And there is a lot of shit to get together. Billy-as-Bobby's midfilm monologue on how his self-loathing was drilled into him as a child is sensitively handled - or more sensitively handled than you'd perhaps expect from the director of Get Him to the Greek - but it also reminded me how wise Simon Amstell was to distance himself from the protagonist of 2018's Benjamin by casting someone else in the Simon Amstell role; there was a crucial opening-up of perspective (not to mention breathing space) in that movie that there isn't here. I still had a reasonable time with Bros: it's hard for me to object too vociferously to any film that features both the line "lesbians, disperse!" and a solid Yentl gag. There might even be lessons to be learnt from the film's commercial failure, if the studios were any longer interested in learning lessons that don't result in them printing money hand-over-fist. But chief among them would have to be that a film can't ever be entirely good for the gays if it's seen and widely perceived to be representing only one among their number. The trouble with Bros is that it barely seems to justify the plurality of its own title: in the end, it really is all about Billy.

Bros is playing in selected cinemas.

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