“Success has many fathers,” the old saying goes, “but failure is an orphan.” Nonetheless, that orphan has no shortage of forensic surgeons ready to give it an autopsy. As early as Saturday of the opening weekend of the Universal gay romantic comedy “Bros,” the Monday-morning quarterbacking began, as various corners of the internet came forward with their reasons why the film’s grosses were a disappointment.
The marketing was too focused on its status as the first major-studio LGBTQ rom-com! It was too white! The poster was off-putting! The title was vague! Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane aren’t big enough names to open a movie! People don’t go to rom-coms during Halloween season! People don’t go to rom-coms, full stop! The reasons seemed endless. Sometimes they were thoughtful. Sometimes.
If you’re familiar with “Bros” star and co-writer Eichner’s work on “Billy on the Street” or “Difficult People,” then you know he didn’t sink quietly into the sunset. Taking to Twitter on Sunday, Eichner noted, “Even with glowing reviews, great Rotten Tomatoes scores, an A CinemaScore etc, 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,” adding, “Everyone who ISN’T a homophobic weirdo should go see BROS tonight! You will have a blast!”
Contemporary reading comprehension and short online tempers being what they are, these tweets immediately got translated into: “Billy Eichner called everyone who didn’t see ‘Bros’ a homophobe!”
So what, then, should we take away from the disappointing opening weekend of “Bros”? Well, for starters, some of those online theories actually do hold water. With the notable exception of last spring’s Sandra Bullock-Channing Tatum vehicle “The Lost City,” which grossed $191 million worldwide, romantic comedies aren’t pulling a still-pandemic-gun-shy populace back into movie theaters the way that big action spectacles and franchises do. Heck, even Jennifer Lopez’s “Marry Me” hit Peacock the same day it hit theaters.
As for the actual timing — putting aside the detail of a massive hurricane pummeling the East Coast last weekend — Universal probably did “Bros” no favors moving it from its original August slot (a time of year that worked well for previous Judd Apatow productions like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Pineapple Express”) into the September 30 date vacated by “Mission: Impossible 7.” For audiences already getting into the Halloween mood, they were clearly more drawn to “Smile” on the big screen or “Hocus Pocus 2” on Disney+.
And while Eichner and Macfarlane may lack marquee clout, “Bros” co-star and co-producer Guy Branum aptly observed on Twitter that while earlier Apatow movies surrounded newcomers with familiar faces — Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck” had Tilda Swinton, John Cena, Bill Hader and LeBron James providing additional star wattage — “Bros” instead took the bold move of populating the entire cast with LGBTQ+ performers. The hilarious ensemble featured the likes of Branum, Ts Madison, Miss Lawrence, Dot-Marie Jones, Eve Lindley, Jim Rash and Guillermo Diaz, alongside queer legends like Harvey Fierstein and Amanda Bearse.
And if you’re asking yourself “Why aren’t there more openly queer megastars?” then you’re getting at what I think is the main takeaway regarding the financial performance of “Bros” – much of the underlying anxiety about how much money this movie does or doesn’t make ties into the notion that its performance will directly impact what LGBTQ+ productions get made next. Queer cinema already has a rich and varied history, and it has existed, with some exceptions, almost entirely in the world of the art-house. The major studios have already shown how interested they are in films with queer themes: not very. Even the success of “Brokeback Mountain” — which earned $178 million worldwide back in 2005 — didn’t jump-start that business model.
If Hollywood studios make queer movies with all the frequency of appearances of Halley’s Comet, then it places undue pressure on those films to be all things to all people. The very much not-a-monolith state of the queer community means that no one work of art is ever going to accomplish that. We should support queer art by queer artists, absolutely, but it doesn’t mean that “Bros” is the canary in a coal mine that proves whether such work “deserves” to be produced.
As of this writing, “Bros” has been in theatrical release for less than a week, and so we are at the very beginning of its existence in the culture. From “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” to “Clue” to “Josie and the Pussycats” — not to mention the first “Hocus Pocus” — film history is littered with box-office failures that eventually found their way into the hearts and minds of a broad audience, and the overwhelmingly positive feedback from viewers who have actually seen “Bros” suggests that we haven’t heard the last of it.