Billy Eichner's 'Bros' is a gay rom-com aimed at the masses : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the grand tradition of the modern rom-com, stories about queer couples are still few and far between. Which is part of what makes the new movie Bros so special: Billy Eichner stars as a lanky intellectual who boasts a proud aversion to romance until he has a meet-cute with his polar opposite, a hyper-masculine gym rat played by Luke Macfarlane. Eichner co-wrote the movie, and Judd Apatow is a producer, so unsurprisingly, the jokes can be broad and raunchy. But there's plenty of heart here, too.

Billy Eichner's 'Bros' is a gay rom-com aimed at the masses

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

In the grand tradition of the modern rom-com, stories about queer couples are still few and far between, which is part of what makes the new movie "Bros" so special. Billy Eichner stars as a lanky intellectual who boasts a proud aversion to romance until, that is, he has a meet-cute with his polar opposite, a hypermasculine gym rat played by Luke Macfarlane. Eichner co-wrote the movie, and Judd Apatow is a producer, so unsurprisingly, the jokes can be broad and raunchy. But there's plenty of heart here, too. I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "Bros" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me today is NPR contributor Bilal Qureshi. Hi, Bilal. Welcome back.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Hi, Aisha - nice to be back.

HARRIS: Also joining us is NPR film critic Bob Mondello. Welcome back to you, too, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Always fun.

HARRIS: And rounding out the panel is the host of "Vibe Check" and the Vulture podcast "Into It," Sam Sanders. Welcome back to you, too, Sam.

SAM SANDERS: It is so nice to be here in such distinguished company.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: Aww (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So "Bros" stars Billy Eichner as Bobby, a 40-year-old podcaster and curator who's helping to launch a new LGBTQ-plus history museum in New York City. Years spent on all the dating apps have left him decidedly jaded about love. But one night at a party, he meets Aaron, a hot, bro-y (ph) lawyer played by Luke Macfarlane. They both hit it off, though they're equally noncommittal and struggle to reconcile their differences. Bobby's flamboyance and queer activism causes friction with Aaron's subdued personality and more passive approach to queer issues. As these rom-coms go, of course, a comedy of errors and disagreements ensue.

The rest of the cast is made up almost entirely of queer performers, including Jim Rash and Dot-Marie Jones as Bobby's colleagues at the museum and Guy Branum and Monica Raymund as Bobby's friends. There are also a ton of cameos, including Debra Messing, Bowen Yang and Harvey Fierstein. The movie's loosely based on Eichner's real life, and Eichner co-wrote the script along with Nicholas Stoller, who directed the movie. "Bros" is out in theaters now. So, Bilal, let's start with you. What was your impression of "Bros?"

QURESHI: All right. I definitely think that there's been a lot of press around - and you said it as well - about how it's the first major studio film to be a queer rom-com. You know, I felt like that seemed at first like a kind of descriptive tagline. But I think in watching it, I was really struck, having grown up with so much independent queer cinema, by what it felt like to see that kind of rom-com suite, which is the music montage of a couple kind of walking through a town, coming out of a candy shop, going into a restaurant in that sort of hazy, you know, rom-com way and then what - how significant that felt, how lush and big it is. It's a really fun movie.

And I think that's the first thing about it that I personally really enjoyed - is that I think it's super self-aware of, like, the drama and the suffering that's often been the storyline of queer stories on screen and has a lot of fun with a genre that we're all familiar with. And I think that - it has that kind of DNA, obviously, of the big studio movies, with Judd Apatow as the producer. And so it has a lot of echoes of "Bridesmaids" and "Trainwreck" for me, at least. And I really enjoyed it. And I think it's exactly what a studio movie is. It's being marketed everywhere. Its posters are all over LA. I would be interested to see how it's received by the normal wide-screen kind of audience for these kinds of movies.

HARRIS: Yeah, I like that you sort of mention how it is taking all of these conventions of the rom-com. I feel like the modern rom-com now - it's reached a point where you can't actually have a modern rom-com without directly referencing other modern rom-coms.

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

HARRIS: So, of course, there's, like - there's "You've Got Mail." There's "When Harry Met Sally." It's all in there. But, obviously, this does feel very, very different. And I'm sure we'll get into the details of how this feels different. Sam, tell us how you feel about "Bros."

SANDERS: I have a lot of thoughts about it, and in general, I approve of it. But there were some parts of the film that I'm just kind of mulling over and trying to decide how angry those parts made me. So I guess my first top-line thought is that, one, I watched it twice. I watched it at home first. And then I watched it at a pretty packed press screening last night in Los Angeles. And where you watch this movie affects how it hits you. It made all the difference. It is an Apatow-style rom-com made for an era when you could get a lot of butts in seats at a theater to see a rom-com. And it feels like every joke and laugh and all the comedic pacing is made for a theater full of people who want to laugh together. And so the jokes felt twice as funny in the room. It felt stiffer by myself at home. So it was very much a movie theater movie.

But besides that win, I had some lingering concerns about the way Billy tries to juggle everything. His character in the film acknowledges right off the bat that he is a privileged, successful, cisgender, tall, white man in the big city. Instead of just joking about the privilege, there's this second plot line of him being in charge of a queer history museum where - I basically see him using that plot line to say, no, no, no, no, no, no. It's not just me. Here are other queer people. But it still ends up centering Billy Eichner and his white, cisgendered male love interest. And I almost wish they would have done more with that instead of halfway doing it.

HARRIS: Yeah.

SANDERS: It just feels like the character in the movie is grappling with Billy Eichner's concerns as the creator of this movie, you know, trying to make sure that he's not too offensive as the cis, white, gay man in charge of the first big studio gay rom-com. And so you have moments where he and his tall, cute, hot, white love interest make it a point to tell the whole theater that, actually, Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick in Stonewall. And it just felt like, oh, my God, I don't need that. It felt like it was trying too hard to acknowledge its privilege instead of just being a love story...

HARRIS: Yeah.

SANDERS: And that annoyed me throughout the entire film, especially when you end up at the end of the film where the two white cisgendered male leads have their little love moment in the midst of the opening of a queer history museum. They've literally centered themselves in the finale scene in a space that was meant to not center them. That just, like, annoyed me.

HARRIS: Yeah.

SANDERS: I have more thoughts, but I've rambled on a bit. I want to leave some space for others to comment.

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Absolutely. Bob, how did you feel about "Bros"?

MONDELLO: I think I split the difference, but I think if you're making a film which is the first big studio gay rom-com, you kind of need to do some work. Sam, though, you don't need to hear some of the things that they were saying. The - I don't know how to describe them, the mainstream audience...

HARRIS: The straights? (Laughter).

MONDELLO: Well, I'm hesitant, but yeah.

HARRIS: Well, look, as the resident straight here, you can say that.

MONDELLO: It's not unuseful to explain a lot of those things. I mean, I think an awful lot of people will not have heard that Abraham Lincoln slept with men.

SANDERS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: I think that's something that just doesn't come up very often in conversation, although a lot of gay people are conscious of it because it's been brought up in other contexts. And I think that is useful for the audience that he's trying to reach, which is a broader than just...

SANDERS: I know.

MONDELLO: ...The gay audience.

SANDERS: See - but, Bob, that was my problem. Like, I found myself thinking, oh, I've gotten really used to queer content, in the age of streaming, tailored just for queer people - smaller, not as broad. And I think this film was asking me to go back to an era of broad...

MONDELLO: Yep.

SANDERS: ...Gay comedy that I'm not used to anymore or just - yeah, I'm not used to it.

MONDELLO: I think what it's doing is reasonably sensible in a commercial sense. It's very calculated and smart to do the things that it's doing. In regards to positioning him as a somebody who can talk about the history of gays, they're reasonably clever solutions to a problem that they perceived. Now, whether that needs to be an issue anymore, I don't know. They make an awful lot of movies these days that play to niche audiences. I think this one doesn't want to.

SANDERS: No, not at all.

QURESHI: I think one of the things that I, like, really enjoyed about it is that I do think it's an amazing time for narrowcasting. There's lots and lots of things that can be seen by people that are made for them. As a South Asian, immigrant, queer, American, like, I appreciate that there is an - exactly a series and a TV show now for me. I like this film as a film that's very much in conversation with Hollywood studio tradition and a very particular genre. And that I think is really interesting in the mix of the broader kind of content that we have. To have something like this, it's - I mean, I found it incredibly self-aware, incredibly fun in terms of how it mocks and plays with the rom-com form. I think that engagement is what I found interesting about it. And I do think that the film is inviting the discourse, and that's great. But in terms of the broadness of it, I think about the theater that I grew up in in Mechanicsville, Va., where this will now be playing, and the posters for this...

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

QURESHI: ...Which are two men, you know, grabbing each other's ass, is, like, everywhere in the country, it seems sometimes. And I think that is really interesting.

SANDERS: Yeah.

QURESHI: And to Bob's point, like, I am a big fan of the super amazing independent artful queer cinema and filmmaking that's been done for such a long time, and I hope more and more people see a lot more of that. But I see this as very much a studio rom-com, and that's what Billy Eichner has talked about. His inspirations are Tom Hanks and Steve Martin. And this is a movie in that - in conversation with those films.

MONDELLO: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn't have guessed that he could hold his own in a comedy where he had to be the star. And I thought he did a really nice job with it. I've never thought of him as an actor, particularly. He's a comedian.

QURESHI: Yeah, me neither.

MONDELLO: And I thought he did really well with that. I thought...

SANDERS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: ...They both did, actually.

SANDERS: You know, I mean, I hear the points about this movie acknowledging the discourse, this movie being self-aware. But in moments, it felt like it was too self-aware and too anticipating of a potential negative discourse around queer issues that it went overboard on that instead of just being a fun love story. You know, for instance, I end up hearing a lot about queer history from Billy Eichner in this film that I already knew. Yet I never felt that they took enough time to show me how his character's edges were softening and to really prove to me that these two male love interests could make it work. I kind of wanted more time spent on the actual love story and not what felt like tending to the potential discourses and educating the potential audiences. This movie, even though it was brilliant in some points and really, really comedic and funny and, like, laugh-out-loud funny, it felt like it was answering to too many perceived obligations. You know, it wanted to have something for straight people and something for queer people and check all the boxes of the entire alphabet, LGBTQIA, and, you know, acknowledge your privilege and, you know, reference all these old rom-coms. It tried to hit too many bases.

HARRIS: Yeah.

QURESHI: And did you think that didn't work? Did you think that combination didn't work?

SANDERS: It still works. I think it would have been better if it was smaller. But the broadness of it and the trying to speak to all of these concerns and audiences felt like it took away from a actually pretty good love story.

HARRIS: I think I came away from it feeling as though this was a Apatowlian (ph) comedy that also sometimes tries to bite from Spike Lee. Like, there was, like, a montage moment where it's just, like, you see faces of queer people of history.

SANDERS: Yeah, I didn't need it. It was an afterschool special.

HARRIS: And in a Spike Lee movie, it can work because he's not necessarily doing broad comedy in most of his films. He is doing more of a satire or more of a social commentary. And so I kind of felt that way, too, a little bit sometimes, Sam, where it felt like there was just this, like, disconnect between genres that, like, weren't quite mixing in the same way. But how much of this is, like, Billy Eichner putting this on himself versus, like, this is what people would expect for them to do? And I think that's part of the problem is that, like, one movie can't be everything to everyone. And I don't want to do a one-to-one comparison, but we did have "Fire Island" earlier this summer, another queer rom-com. I don't really understand the major studio - like, Hulu feels like a major studio now, but maybe I'm...

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Obviously, it's not on the same scale, but it was a big movie for what it was. It was trying to address issues around race, around class and all of those things.

MONDELLO: Right.

HARRIS: But do you feel as though it kind of understood what it needed to do more so than this film?

MONDELLO: Let me - well, let me draw the distinction between this and a Hulu movie, right? Hulu movies don't have to make money...

HARRIS: Right, right, right.

MONDELLO: ...In the marketplace. And the difference when you spend 20 or $30 million on producing a movie, then it has to make 60 or 70 before it's, you know, approaching profitability. You have a different sort of set of standards and a different set of requirements. And it's tougher to meet that. And for that reason, the success or failure of this movie is going to determine whether more movies like this are made. It's easy to make them for television. It is not easy to make it for the multiplex. And the reason everybody keeps on talking about its place in history and the fact that it is - it's turning a corner kind of for the rom-com is that if it doesn't work, there's a problem. It's like when "Brokeback Mountain" came out, it was a romance - right? - and a pretty straightforward one, really. On the other hand, had it not done what it did, you would not have had a lot of the things that have followed.

HARRIS: Yeah.

QURESHI: It struck me as a movie - at least for me, I think the title, like, "Bros," it does explore this, like, performance of masculinity, which I think is a topic that goes beyond, like, any particular race or class part of the gay community to, like, an idea that I think was interesting to see explored in a mainstream way. You know, there was a documentary a few years ago, "Do I Sound Gay?" I remember finding that really interesting, kind of talking about, you know, what is the gay voice? What does it mean to be a masc bro? What does it mean - the idea of being a bro? Like, I actually found that that is one thing that this film had things to say about that I think were interesting but, I mean, in a mainstream film.

SANDERS: I think all of that was great. I think all of the moments where Billy and his love interest are dealing with sex and relationship in a way that feels very personal and specific to them, it works - navigating monogamy, navigating foursomes, navigating the annoying fourth in a foursome. Do I take testosterone? How hot do I want to be? How low should my voice be? That felt so authentic. And my thing was I just wanted more of that. And, like, doing that and putting that on a screen for me felt revolutionary enough that all of the service to, like, the queer community and speaking for all of the queers felt unnecessary. It just felt unnecessary.

I want to be very clear here. I like this movie. I like it a lot. I think it has a heart. I think it's hilarious. I just think that there were some things in this film that didn't need to be there and some things they could have done more of to make it even better.

MONDELLO: May I just say that I'm becoming acutely conscious that I am of a different generation than you guys?

HARRIS: (Laughter).

MONDELLO: I've been married, essentially, for 34 years. That's longer than you guys have been alive, practically.

SANDERS: I'm 38, Bob. I'm old.

MONDELLO: I know that.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: I'm 34, so exactly as long.

QURESHI: Come on. Let's not - we're not - I'm old, too. Like...

SANDERS: But I see your point. I see your point, Bob. I see your point.

HARRIS: Yes, yes.

MONDELLO: The point I want to make is that this is shatteringly new for somebody of my generation - I mean, just astonishing. And we came through a lot in gay history ourselves, for which reason I know most of it, right? And I think I'm coming at it from a different point. And I'm - I found it sort of refreshing that they were doing a lot of the things that Sam is distressed about.

(LAUGHTER)

QURESHI: It's paying tribute to the elders, I think, too, I mean, in the way he saw it.

MONDELLO: Well, thank you for the - I'm not sure I wanted to be an elder, but OK.

(LAUGHTER)

QURESHI: No, I don't mean you, but I mean, like, the idea of kind of what you've inherited. And I think that's something that I think more and more younger queer people are talking about, too - right? - is that the generational freedoms that we have, like, what does it rest on?

MONDELLO: Some of this is a matter of explaining things. Sam, you hosted me when I basically came out to the audience at NPR...

SANDERS: It was beautiful.

MONDELLO: ...On your show.

SANDERS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: And I guess I've been through some of this myself, and I find it nice that somebody is trying to do it in a commercial sense. I think I'm liking better the things that you disliked. I love the stuff that you loved. I think this is a genuinely funny movie.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

QURESHI: I also just want to say, I think it has a lot of fun with streaming queer content with some of the movies that it mocks and - at least in this case, the Hallheart Channel and other things.

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

QURESHI: And I've seen some of these - like, I think its meta commentary on the moviemaking business is also quite amusing, and I enjoyed that.

SANDERS: Yeah. I think I would have taken away 25% of the meta. But also, it was funny to see all the Hallmark references because the other male lead, Luke Macfarlane, he's a big Hallmark holiday movie star.

HARRIS: Right. When I went to go look at his IMDB page, I was like, oh, my goodness, he's kind of like a soap opera star but for Hallmark.

QURESHI: Spurning his career to the ground with this, I think - Hallmark career, I think, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, everyone had a lot of thoughts about "Bros." You should tell us what you think about the movie. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. Up next, we're going to be talking about what's making us happy this week.

Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what's making us happy? Bob, let's start with you.

MONDELLO: I'm intrigued by a small independent sci-fi movie - a lot of really beautiful work. It's called "Vesper," and it's an eco-fable about a time when humankind has managed to sort of bioengineer nature out of nature. It has contributed to a planet where nothing grows anymore. And there's a 13-year-old girl named Vesper who is trying to bio-hack her way into a sustainable world. I felt as if it was a combination of maybe "Hunger Games" and something like "Children Of Men" or, I don't know, "The Road" - one of those other sort of dystopian futures. It's just a beautiful picture that has a bunch of practical effects - I mean, just sort of things that are presumably happening in front of the camera and then a lot of things that you know can't be happening in front of the camera that have to have been digitally added. It's a European production. It's really, really interesting. And it opens this weekend, so everybody else gets a chance to see it, too.

HARRIS: Great, so that's "Vesper." And it's in theaters?

MONDELLO: Mmm hmm.

HARRIS: All right. You had me at "Children Of Men" and practical effects. Those are both right up my alley. Bilal, what's making you happy this week?

QURESHI: I think by the time this airs, this will probably be in everybody's mind. But I love the mashup that's going on with the Library of Congress and Lizzo on the internet this week, which is that the Library of Congress tweeted at Lizzo on her way to Washington, D.C., to perform - the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden - that they have this incredible collection of historic flutes. And she played James Madison's crystal flute on stage this week. And I think there was a security team from the Library of Congress there went and delivered it to her. I just love this mashup that I was not expecting to have happen. And it's just been really funny to see the Librarian of Congress tweeting Lizzo lyrics to her and her going to the Library of Congress. As a Washingtonian for a long time, I just kind of love it. So that's what's making me happy, is a bit of a duet that I was not expecting.

HARRIS: Nice - Lizzo playing James Madison's flute. Sam, what is making you happy?

SANDERS: What's making me happy this week is a really good R&B album that the Spotify algorithm showed to me probably about two weeks ago. And since I discovered it, I haven't put it down. It is an album called "Three Dimensions Deep" by this artist named Amber Mark.

HARRIS: I love Amber Mark, yeah.

SANDERS: It came out in January of this year, but I just discovered it. And she has this wonderful kind of low R&B, raspy voice, in the spirit of, like, Toni Braxton or T-Boz from TLC. And it's paired with this wonderful neo-soul throwback, chill, almost ambient R&B sounds. It's so beautiful. It's one of those albums you can play from the top to the bottom, and it all just works. My favorite track on it is probably the second one. It's called "What It Is." It is wonderful R&B for a Sunday afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IT IS")

AMBER MARK: (Singing) Feel it in my bones, oh, I've got to know. Tell me what it is, it is.

SANDERS: But it's quickly becoming my favorite album of the year after Beyonce. And it's one of those things that made me say, maybe the Spotify algorithm is good because I would have never discovered Amber Mark without the algorithm. So kudos to Amber Mark. And I guess, thank you, Spotify.

HARRIS: Awesome. And what was the name of that album again?

SANDERS: It is called "Three Dimensions Deep."

HARRIS: Awesome. Well, what's making me happy is very, very simple and basic and carnal. Our man Usher has been posting lots of thirst traps - nostalgic thirst traps - because it's the 25 anniversary of the album "My Way." He was just a teenager when he made that album, and now he is in his mid-40s. And he's doing these, like, side-by-side pics of his, like, cover album and then him in the present day. And it looks like he's barely aged a day since he was, like, a teenager. And I've just been enjoying him, like, throwing these in on his Instagram feed. Every time I open my Instagram, I'm like, oh, look at Usher, still looking fine, looking great. I'm so happy for him. He seems to be thriving. Also, a little plug for our NPR Tiny Desk, which if you somehow haven't watched it yet from this past summer, go watch it because, you know...

SANDERS: He's great.

QURESHI: He's - yeah.

HARRIS: He's just doing his thing. I'm happy to see him. Besides, like, someone like Beyonce, he's one of the few people who's, like, been able to stay super relevant for the last 25-plus years, so...

SANDERS: He's also doing a Vegas residency right now.

HARRIS: Yeah.

QURESHI: Yep.

SANDERS: I'm actually trying to get a critical mass of friends to come with me to see him in March in Vegas. I've heard the Vegas show is great, and I actually think that a Vegas show is the platonic ideal of a concert experience.

HARRIS: Yes, I'm trying to do that as well. I mean, him roller skating while singing? Like, yes, yes.

SANDERS: Well, let's go. Let's get a group together. Let's go.

HARRIS: Look, Sam, I am down to go. Just let me know.

SANDERS: OK. You heard it here first, POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR.

HARRIS: Well, that's what's making me happy. It's Usher, in every way possible right now. And if you want links for what we recommended plus some more recommendations, you can sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. Bilal Qureshi, Bob Mondello and Sam Sanders, thank you so much for talking out "Bros" with me. It was great to hear all your thoughts and all your opinions.

QURESHI: Thank you for having me.

MONDELLO: Great fun.

SANDERS: Thank you. And I want to say to any people who are going to say you were too hard on Billy Eichner, the movie's a B for me. I'm just saying what it would have taken to get it to an A. That's all I'm saying. He still passed. Billy, you passed. Billy, you passed, OK? I love you, Billy.

HARRIS: Don't send Sam any hate mail, hate tweets.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Please.

HARRIS: This episode was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all next week when we'll be talking about "The Patient."

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