By George Elkind
“Not all gay people are nice,” says Bobby Leiber, played by Billy Eichner as the lead character in “Bros,” the new Judd Apatow-produced feature which Eichner also co-wrote and executive produced. As one of Bobby’s many corrective, prescriptive statements, the point is meant to give the new romantic comedy some teeth and currency, establishing daylight between “Bros” and more idealized (if often charged and tragic) depictions of queerness — and of white, cisgender gay men in particular.
In “Bros,” Bobby acts as the privileged public face of the LGBTQ+ community, a role that comes with a tangled set of responsibilities and anxieties. The film doesn’t try to hide that fact. Instead, it provides a space to examine the role of the cis gay white men it makes its subject, begging the question: As both social outsiders on one level and mobile insiders on another — in other words, as queer people who are also part of American society’s most dominant group — what should white cis gay men do to not be part of the problem?
Whatever the answer, Bobby at first appears to be doing something right. Winning a (plainly comical) “Best Cis Male Gay Man” award and spearheading a fictional, first-of-its-kind National LGBTQ+ Museum in New York, he devotes his time to dredging up and presenting potentially lost but functionally obvious pieces of queer history, often with an archly righteous tone. (He lets us know who Marsha P. Johnson was, for instance). Working with a pointedly diverse, often bickering leadership committee at the museum and running a podcast highlighting often-ignored queer groups, the film positions him as a kind of intra-community ally. He’s doing his best by his peers but remains both lonely and in denial about that fact; despite his work, he’s unfulfilled.
Amid the film’s swirl of existential questions surrounding the societal role of cisgender white gay men, Bobby’s relationship status provides “Bros” with its other main concern, and a chance to dig into the personal and political contradictions of this experience. An anal-retentive intellectual at once fearful of intimacy and yearning for connection, the film opens with Bobby reacting to a a succession of anonymous, app-based flings. Bored with conversations rarely advancing past “what’s up” and transactional sex, Bobby finds himself caught in a cycle of emotionally repressed fumblings toward connection; in this depiction of mutually stunted inarticulacy, “Bros” makes this masculine tendency — call it classically male bullshit — another subject, dealing with the prevailing pressures queer men experience so acutely around gender performance. Before long, Bobby meets an ex-hockey-playing hunk named Aaron (played with a welcome surplus of wit by Luke Macfarlane); with his swaggering, seemingly at-ease masculinity, he is a foil to Bobby’s own frail and anxious build and manner. For Bobby, attraction to Aaron constitutes a kind of political self-betrayal, a fraught fraternization with a culture of superficial and assimilationist queerness he resents while taking part in — and which runs counter to his progressive image of himself.
For the film’s publicly accepted cis, white gay men – who can move in New York society with relative freedom compared to those who suffered before them – the meaning of their identity becomes jumbled and unclear. Left with little to worry about materially from day to day, they become preoccupied even in romance with their own and others’ perceptions of themselves. They may be gay, but they’re men, too, and prone to the kinds of emotional repression that entails. Struggling with even the faintest forms of emotional intimacy, internalized expectations around performance of masculinity constrict their expressions at frequent turns throughout the film — often enough that it quickly becomes a recurring gag.
While the gendered pressures shaping the characters’ more “bro-y” behavior are obvious, Bobby’s vocal, almost maniacally insistent progressivism is often presented critically in a way that proves refreshing. At its best, “Bros” dramatizes this as its own kind of insecure performance, suggesting that Bobby’s (mostly verbal and work-based) activist tendencies aren’t wholly altruistic, wrapped up in unease regarding his position in the community and in the world.
As a queer character flush with historically rare forms of relative privilege, he enacts solidarity with an urgency that’s not just driven by consideration, his attention to historical struggles scanning as a focus on difficulties that aren’t quite his. In grasping at his own place within the LGBTQ+ community and seizing upon histories of hardship, there are moments where other, more marginalized characters in his orbit seemingly appear mainly to prop up his conception of himself.
But that unease seems to belong to more than just the character, bleeding into Eichner and co-writer and director Nicholas Stoller’s script more broadly. The film spends a good deal of time chiding its gay white characters, leaving less time to flesh out its more diverse (and often thinly sketched) BIPOC cast. With press releases touting the film’s use of authentic LGBTQ+ casting, the fact that even straight characters onscreen were mandated to be played by queer actors makes the move scan less as meaningful activism than as a flourish of PR. (Particularly distracting is the casting of Jai Rodriguez, from the original “Queer Eye,” as Aaron’s brother, who bears no racial resemblance to Aaron or his onscreen parents, in an act that comes off as eerie for its trivializing of such difference; a simple line about adoption could have made this click). What this and other clumsily inclusive gestures seems to express is an anxiety on the part of the film’s backers about centering a movie today on a pair of cis, white, gay men.
It’s the same tension that’s played out throughout the film, which sees its two key threads — the thematic question of where gay white men fit into society now and, then, the matter of the starring couple’s romantic prospects in that context — jockeying for space onscreen. In this regard, one scene in which Bobby takes a stage alongside his variously queer colleagues to promote the museum’s attention to LGBTQ+ histories of struggle is particularly telling. While we glimpse a performance of solidarity that seems appropriate and right, it lasts just a few minutes before, in an act of writerly, actorly and character-based self-absorption I won’t quite spoil, his peers are recast as backing figures for his own story and the film’s romantic plot.
Demonstrating just where exactly the film’s real heart is, it’s a prime case study of inclusion for the sake of optics over anything else.