Friday was a big night for crowd-pleasing films at the Toronto International Film Festival, with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic “The Woman King” screening at Roy Thomson Hall to a huge ovation and Nicholas Stoller’s “Bros” premiering a few hours later for a raucous crowd in the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Both films thrilled the capacity crowds in TIFF’s two largest venues, “The Woman King” by putting a group of Black female warriors (led by Viola Davis) at the center of a rousing full-scale action movie and “Bros” by simply being, as co-writer and star Billy Eichner said, “an R-rated gay rom-com that’s going to be released in more than 3,000 theaters” by Universal.
And not that Eichner is competitive or anything, but when he came on stage with Stoller and the rest of the cast at the end of the screening, he encouraged the lengthy standing ovation by referring to what was reportedly the lengthiest such reception at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
“Keep it going!” he shouted. “Longer than ‘The Whale’! I want a longer ovation than ‘The Whale’!”
It’s safe to say that the “Bros” ovation fell short of the six-minute one that greeted “The Whale” star Brendan Fraser in Venice, but who apart from Eichner was counting? Besides, the Q&A that followed “Bros” included what will almost certainly be the most risqué exchange at any post-screening festival conversation in recent memory.
It began when an audience member asked a relatively straightforward question of the panelists: Stoller, Eichner and about eight other actors from the movie, a consistently uproarious romantic comedy that also happens to depict the LGBTQ+ alphabet and contain a lot of sex.
“What’s the one thing you want young people to take away from this?” the questioner asked.
“That poppers help with anal sex!” actor Guy Branum immediately replied.
The crowd erupted in laughter and cheers, and Eichner laughed as well. “You didn’t hear that at the ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ press conference!” he shouted.
Well, no, you didn’t. “Bros” is a pretty singular entry on the film-festival circuit this year – not because it’s about a gay relationship, but because it takes the sensibility of producer Judd Apatow and co-writer and director Stoller – whose previous movies include “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Meet Me at the Greek” and “Neighbors” – and applies them to a story that isn’t interested in trying to fit gay characters into the usual straight rom-com template.
In fact, it makes fun of the whole idea of doing that in a scene early in the movie, when Eichner’s character, Bobby, is asked to write a gay rom-com for a studio exec who’s only really interested in an edgeless movie that will show that “love is love is love.”
Bobby, spewing pop-culture references and snarky putdowns with almost exactly as much zest as the guy who plays him does, begs to differ, and so does “Bros.” With a cast in which all the LGBTQ characters are played by LGBTQ actors, the film manages to make the point that, as Branum also said in the Q&A, “Queer lives are different than straight lives.”
The film, Eichner said, started when Stoller (“a straight man, for better or worse”) decided that his next film should be a romantic comedy about a gay couple. He and Eicher began writing it together – and no, he said in response to another audience question, he didn’t think about the responsibility of writing a the first major-studio gay rom-com.
“I don’t sit down and think, ‘Let’s create an historic film!’” Eichner said.
“I do that, actually, every time I open Final Draft,” Stoller interrupted.
Still, Eichner added, he did feel some responsibility as an openly gay creator. “I want gay men and women to go to a theater and look at the screen and think, ‘That’s who we are,’” he said.
“They always tell you to write what you know. But what if I wrote what I know, what if I wrote the truth and it scared people? … I lived with that and had to navigate that for many years. … But Judd and everybody at Universal said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’”