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‘Bros’ Review: LGBTQ+ Rom-Com Makes History, Yes, But Also Delivers the Rom and the Com

Star and co-writer Billy Eichner mocks his own privilege as a cis gay white male, but his film makes an effort to lift up the larger queer community

Let’s get the historical housekeeping out of the way first: “Bros” is the first gay rom-com to be released by a major studio, an accomplishment with its share of codicils — there have been other queer films released by majors but they weren’t romantic comedies, there have been LGBTQ+ films of all stripes released by studios, but always by their indie shingle. (“Brokeback Mountain,” for instance, was released by Universal’s Focus Features label, while “big” Universal is stepping up to the plate for “Bros.”)

That’s a lot of historical baggage for any one film to have to carry, but it matters that the film succeeds at the rom-com just as much as it deserves notice for its narrowly defined status as “first.” Star and co-writer Billy Eichner spins a lot of plates here, crafting a hilarious and heartfelt film that also acknowledges the challenging and often hidden history of queer people in American society.

It’s also clear that Eichner fully understands his privilege; the film opens with his character, Bobby Leiber, winning a “Cis White Gay Man of the Year” award, a tacit acknowledgment that Eichner’s identity as such has garnered him a golden ticket not granted to fellow members of the community. “Bros” at least tries to lift as many boats as possible; not only is the principal cast made up entirely of LGBTQ+ actors (including in the straight roles), but the film gives screen time — and funny lines — to trans and non-binary performers of color. From a production standpoint, that’s not merely representation: it’s material gain, queer artists having jobs in a film that will hit multiplex screens rather than the limited reach of the queer film-festival circuit. Maybe next Universal will greenlight a film from acclaimed indigenous trans filmmaker Sydney Freeland. (Note to Universal: please do this.)

Bobby is both a queer-history podcaster and a board member of New York City’s forthcoming LGBTQ+ museum, where he works alongside (and sometimes at odds with) a crew of community organizers representing every letter in the acronym, played by the very funny cohort of Miss Lawrence, Ts Madison, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash and Eve Lindley. They are scene-stealers in the best Judd Apatow tradition (he produced), as is Guy Branum, who pops up periodically to deliver Eve Arden–worthy rejoinders as Bobby’s best friend. (Full disclosure: Branum and I are friends and podcast colleagues.)

The museum scenes imbue “Bros” with a sense of community legacy that informs the story (and has the potential to gently educate many of the movie’s viewers), as does the presence of out-before-it-was-safe film and TV veterans like Harvey Fierstein and Amanda Bearse. The main plot here is, of course, a romance: Bobby meets very handsome lawyer Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) at a launch party for an app (“Zellwegr,” for gay men who just want to talk about actresses) and finds himself immediately both turned on and thoroughly annoyed by this stranger who’s clearly smarter than he looks but is also just as commitment-shy as Bobby.

As movie couples like this do, they work their way through each other’s defenses, culminating in a handful of sex scenes that will make most straight viewers chuckle awkwardly but will more likely prompt guffaws among certain queer audience members. In one of them, Bobby and Aaron finally take the plunge with each other and are simultaneously in the moment and falling back on clichéd moves and dialogue they’ve learned from a popular niche of ostentatiously masculine gay porn. They’re performing for each other and for themselves, but between the lines, they’re actually connecting in an intimate way.

We’ve seen movies about gay guys who fall in love, and about emotionally inaccessible people who learn to let their walls come down, but “Bros” links the two. Bobby and Aaron aren’t just commitment-phobic because they’re hard-working New Yorkers; they both bear the bruises of a society that constantly judges the worth and the “manliness” of gay men.

Whether it’s Bobby recalling how he gave up on his dream of musical theater because a professor told him he wasn’t butch enough, or Aaron admitting he never pursued his dreams of being a chocolatier because being a confectioner was “too faggy,” these guys were damaged by the negative messaging they received growing up, messaging that the film hopes is less prevalent than it used to be. When his friend Tina (Monica Raymund, “Hightown”) tells Bobby that two-thirds of her son’s grammar-school class identify as non-binary, he retorts, “We had AIDS; they had ‘Glee,’” a line so funny and so true that I want to learn needlepoint — how faggy! — so I can put it on my wall.

Bobby’s vulnerability gives Eichner the opportunity to use a rarely-utilized color in his paintbox; if you know his brilliant “Billy on the Street” shorts or his work on Hulu’s scathing “Difficult People,” you know he’s great at being insulting and confrontational, and while that side of his comedy certainly gets its moments in “Bros,” his performance encompasses genuine sweetness and the soft center of someone who has built up a prickly outer shell to protect it.

Like Bobby, this gay critic’s not-so-secret comfort viewing is Hallmark Christmas movies, and I’ve always enjoyed Macfarlane’s work as a charming romantic lead in them, but “Bros” offers the kind of complexity and shading (to say nothing of humor) that Hallmark never could. Anyone coming into this film only knowing Macfarlane for his cozy cable movies will leave with a new appreciation of this versatile actor’s wheelhouse.

Cinematographer Brandon Trost (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) bathes the film in a romantic-comedy glow, whether Bobby and Aaron are falling for each other in Manhattan or in Provincetown, and overall, “Bros” harkens back to old-school rom-coms and their more recent iterations. (Bobby curls up with “You’ve Got Mail” at one point, and of course a major confrontation has to take place at the foot of one of the city’s many bridges.) But it’s also a throwback to that moment not so long ago when new Judd Apatow movies were something to look forward to; it helps that director Nicholas Stoller previously made two of the best ones, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and the underappreciated, Rohmer-esque “The Five-Year Engagement.”

The Big Gesture that’s baked into every rom-com feels a little different here; not only does it bring the characters together and deliver them to a new understanding of themselves and others, it provides a moment for all the film’s characters — gay, lesbian, bi, trans, non-binary, even straight — to come together for a moment of joyous community. (I won’t give away the song choice, but cheers to music supervisor Rob Lowry for picking just the right utopian dancefloor anthem, covered by just the right ally.)

“Bros” matters because it cracks the corporate glass ceiling just a little bit more. It matters because it’s informed by gay trauma and takes a chance at transforming that agony into something joyful. It matters because it knows its place in history, the work of everyone who made this moment possible and all the work still left to do. And within the confines of cinema walls, it matters because it allows queer love, a swooning romance, to flourish and win on its own terms.

“Bros” opens in U.S. theaters Sept. 30 via Universal Pictures.