- Chris Phillips
ON BROS, OCTOBER 2022
In my decade-plus pursuing a career as a screenwriter, I’ve gotten the opportunity to pitch my scripts to many different producers, and I do my homework as much as possible to ensure I’m only pitching to people with a history/affinity for my kind of projects: tough, indie-minded, character-driven dramas that tend to center on gay, male protagonists (i.e., write what you know). Given this subject matter focus, I’m well aware this could be why you’ve never seen my name under the “Written By” credit of a major motion picture. I used to work with a manager who tried to get my scripts in front of any producer who would take her call, which led to a lot of awkward convos with me enthusing about my gay relationship drama with a dude who’s looking for, say, “elevated horror.” This same manager would then encourage me to rewire my gay relationship drama into “elevated horror” on the off chance that this producer would then read it, love it, option it, and produce it. Needless to say, I am not working with this manager anymore. I have no desire to write “elevated horror,” nor do I wish to play an unfriendly room ever again. (I can, however, write a lean, mean procedural, and was inspired to draft such a pilot with a Black, straight, female protagonist. That same manager fretted I’d be accused of appropriation and begged, “Can’t your lead at least be a Black gay man?” Almost as a joke, I gave my female lead a gay partner…and literally threw him out a window halfway through the pilot. This script then ended up a Top 5 finalist in a major screenwriting competition, and suddenly, my manager thought it was a masterwork. But I digress.) One of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received in Hollywood – and advice is all over the place; valuable, less so – is to know your audience.
On Sunday October 2nd, my husband and I went to see BROS, the Universal Studios-produced, unapologetically (some might say self-consciously) gay rom-com that opened on, like, 3,000 screens around the country Friday, September 30th. The Monday-morning quarterbacking quickly hit the trades, noting that the heavily hyped movie was a commercial bust, grossing less than $5 million its opening weekend despite gushing notices from the (mostly straight) major critics, high test audience scores, and a promotional budget somewhere around $30 million (!), from what I read. The prior weekend, Olivia Wilde’s DON’T WORRY DARLING survived an avalanche of bad press and (inexplicably, IMHO) brutal reviews to open at $19 million – virtually the same number that greeted THE WOMAN KING’s opening the week before and the star-free horror flick SMILE the same weekend BROS opened -- so ticket buyers were out there. There’s no way to spin it: those same ticket buyers just didn’t want to see BROS.
Between BROS and FIRE ISLAND – which was also backed by a major studio, yet sent straight to streaming on Hulu – I kept hearing breathless proclamations that this was the Year of the Gay Rom-Com, which could only be called such by straight people. To my mind, the Year(s) of the Gay Rom-Com happened two decades ago in the late 90’s and early aughts, with indie filmmakers creating an equal and opposite reaction to the more serious (some might say depressing) films of the early 90’s New Queer Cinema. “Gay life doesn’t have to be such a bummer,” movies like TRICK, KISSING JESSICA STEIN, THE BROKEN HEARTS CLUB, ALL OVER THE GUY, TOUCH OF PINK, EATING OUT, ANOTHER GAY MOVIE and the like seemed to say. Generally speaking, these films were all about LGBTQ-identifying characters with intimacy/commitment issues, not unlike (in fact, exactly like) the characters in BROS and FIRE ISLAND.
As usual, it took Hollywood studios a while to catch up. LOVE, SIMON, the archetypal, inoffensive-to-the-point-of-precious teen coming-out story was released in 2018, decades after festival fare like EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, GET REAL, BEAUTIFUL THING, THE MUDGE BOY and loads of other indie features and shorts with not nearly as wide distribution hit screens. As well-intentioned as it is, the only person in the world who could consider LOVE, SIMON radical is the straight studio executive who greenlit it. And now, here came BROS, with the same dubious line about its revolutionary presence, a presence that was only possible thanks to all the indie movies from the 90’s and aughts laying the groundwork and proving that there was indeed an audience for such stories. Just not a straight one.
Full disclosure: I’m not a rom-com fan. One of the biggest controversies in my household is that my husband – who I bonded with on our first date over mutual passion for artsy-fartsy Criterion Channel films -- adores Nancy Meyers movies: ditzy female leads, rich-white-people stakes, real estate porn and all. My favorite Woody Allen movies are the dark shit like MATCH POINT and INTERIORS. And the only rom-com script I’d put in the canon is WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… Fantasyland depictions of romantic relationships, silly plot contrivances, reductive ideas of how men and women – straight or gay – behave, and “all you need is that perfect person!” worldviews leave a bad aftertaste in my mouth. Even in the aughts, when the rom-com was the dominant form, my fave gay movie was Jon Shear’s URBANIA, a gritty, surreal, existential nightmare that no one I know has ever heard of, much less seen, including my husband. I don’t pride myself on this. In fact, sometimes I wish my taste in movies ran a little lighter. I’ve been accused (read: dumped) by guys I dated of being “too serious,” and every time my best friend reads one of my own scripts, his initial feedback is always an eye roll and “Great – another sparkling comedy from Chris.” My gay idols as a writer were always Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Larry Kramer and Russell T. Davies; I’m drawn to the stuff that rattles me, not the stuff that affirms. (I’m still irritated that Tony voters picked THE INHERITANCE over SLAVE PLAY.) I haven’t needed affirmation since college, and while I swooned as much as anyone over the recent Netflix series HEARTSTOPPER, this is not the kind of material I seek out. I want to be challenged, especially when it comes to projects about, by and for LGBTQ people.
That said, I did my part as a good gay and showed up for BROS opening weekend in a not-particularly-well-populated theater. And I found the movie freakin’ fascinating. Not the mainstream “everyone’s invited!” rom-com that writer-producer-star Billy Eichner tried to convince us he’d made for the last six months, but the rage-fueled, infinitely more intriguing character and culture study that exists barely below the surface. In fact, that subtext is so glaring from the jump, I’m shocked Eichner managed to ever sell this sucker as an upbeat piece of mass-audience entertainment at all.
I got no problem with a prickly gay protagonist. Quite the opposite: I wish there were more of them. For me, the three greatest gay characters ever written are Michael from THE BOYS IN THE BAND, Ned from THE NORMAL HEART, and Stuart from the original British QUEER AS FOLK. These guys all had well-carved chips on their shoulders and could prove absolute beasts to anyone within spitting distance when cornered, particularly other gay men. Call them – or Eichner’s character Bobby from BROS, for that matter – “self-loathing” if you want, but, lest we forget at our own risk, it’s much more complicated than that. Before the film caves to a third act of factory-issued rom-com beats, declarations, and Marc Shaiman score, BROS may be the first American movie to actively interrogate just how fucked up our social dynamics are within the contemporary LGBTQ community. And that, not its studio origins, all-LGBTQ cast, or $22 million production budget (!!), is what makes it worth a watch. By LGBTQ audiences, of course.
The truth is that BROS doesn’t have much use for straight people, other than the pressure of getting their breeder butts in seats to cover that $52 million (!!!) investment. Did Eichner & Co. really think they were courting a mass audience by capping their official trailer with the exchange “Remember straight people?” “Yeah, they had a good run.” Gay-friendly or not, what heterosexual moviegoer is going to feel motivated to spend their hard-earned money on a ticket to that? The movie itself goes even further: homophobes aren’t the real targets; most vitriol is reserved for anyone who behaves as an “ally” in name only, blathering banal statements of inclusivity as virtue signaling or commercial manipulation. Eichner makes several sharp points here, although you could argue about the usefulness of picking on any media giant that actually provides visibility for us, no matter how disingenuously intended. (What’s the alternative, Billy? For billion-dollar companies like Hallmark to perpetuate the lie that we don’t exist at all?) You could flip that argument around on Eichner himself, who’s been posting on social media some version of “Come on in, straight people! We don’t bite!” for months when actually, he does bite. Hard. (Only one heterosexual character – and she’s an actress playing a parody version of herself – gets a showcase scene, or even funny lines.) Eichner needs them for the movie to turn a profit, and yet his movie hates that he needs them.
Which is understandable. BROS’ alleged $30 million (gulp, it bears repeating) marketing budget can’t hide the fact that heterosexuals are not only beside the point, but counter-productive in the world of the film. And when you get all that outta the way, here’s where BROS really shines. BROS is a movie specifically about gay, cisgender, metropolitan males, and it is hardly a flag-waving, glitter-spraying, disco-dancing pride fest. Quite the contrary. Rather than depicting us as the standard martyred victims or flamboyant cartoons, BROS puts every screwed-up behavior we exhibit on a daily basis under an unflattering microscope. Why do guys on hookup apps demand ass pics of total strangers before asking for a name? Why do we talk at rather than with each other, expressing every inconsequential opinion -- whether on closeted politicians, open relationships, or Mariah Carey -- as if planets hung in the balance? Why do so many of our brothers seem content for their legacies to be “Hated His Job, Did CrossFit,” as Luke MacFarlane’s character Aaron initially does? Why do we gripe about representation, diversity, and inclusion to every outside party we encounter, yet belittle, dismiss and reduce members of our own community based on a few superficial qualities? When Bobby spits “Gay guys are so stupid,” with maximum authentic sneer, it feels like a slap in the best possible way; I’ve never seen a theatrically released film this blunt about how exasperating gay men can be to other gay men. He went there. (And yet, even Eichner has his limits. In the scene where Bobby walks in on Aaron shooting testosterone into his thigh, he chides Aaron over health concerns, only to have Aaron push back that Bobby’s not so judgmental when ogling Aaron’s muscled form. Bobby replies, “Fair.” And that’s the end of that.)
This is where getting brutally realistic about who your audience is becomes creatively freeing rather than constraining. I’ve got a hard time believing that any straight person – even those who hang on every episode of RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE – gives two flying farts about gay men’s interpersonal bullshit. They’re down for THE BIRDCAGE, or PHILADELPHIA, or KINKY BOOTS, or even BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Maybe MILK. But when we start turning the inquisitive lens on ourselves rather than our relationship to mainstream (read: straight) society, they’re gonna change the channel. Or buy a ticket to the horror flick playing next door. If it’s not about them, they don’t care. With so many “content” options, why should they? And when LGBTQ filmmakers stop trying to court or soothe an audience that isn’t going to show up anyway, that’s when they can finally get real.
For its part, FIRE ISLAND literally dances around this stuff while never seeming confused about who its audience is, choosing a safer, oversimplified depiction of “us vs. them” high school social dynamics amongst grown, adult men, where the exclusionary, Pines-housed villains of the piece never become more than one-dimensional mean girls. (Can we place a moratorium on charming New York theater vet Nick Adams playing this kind of role ever again?) BROS, on the other hand, is willing to let its protagonist be an unrepentant, abrasive asshole, one who self-righteously deludes himself into thinking his constant fault-finding with everyone and everything make him, like, a better person. In BROS, Bobby and Aaron are both the us and the them, interchangeably. Neither is reduced to gay cliches with no humanity, neither is all this or all that, and neither is let off the hook for their choices. BROS is about how gay men can be their own worst enemies. Not that our self-centeredness is its own worst enemy – although there’s plenty of that – but that gay men can often serve as each other’s worst enemies. For those of us in urban bubbles, we are often each other’s biggest hindrances to individual self-actualization, whether through pointless, semantics-based conflicts over identity politics, or the destructive messages our own culture sends to us about what makes us valuable, all of which we internalize and act on, or react to. BROS is about Bobby and Aaron reckoning with this, and learning how to create a substantive relationship in spite of it. In BROS’ best moment of acting, writing and direction, Bobby bares his soul about the constant dehumanization and underestimation he’s experienced in his life, and not just at the hands and mouths of straight people. Director Nick Stoller simply lets the scene be, and films McFarlane’s reaction shots with Aaron keeping his sunglasses on, as if witnessing this kind of vulnerability in another gay man is just too damn hard to look at with the naked eye. Eichner performs this speech with a matter-of-factness that breaks your heart more than any tearful overemoting ever could. Until that regrettable – or shamelessly uplifting, depending on your POV – third act, BROS is more honest about the damage we can do to each other in the LGBTQ community than any gay drama in recent memory.
Imagine the kind of film someone with Eichner’s sensibility could’ve made if not shackled to the commercial constraints of a mainstream rom-com? I hate to break it to Universal, but they didn’t need to spend $22 million on BROS; the money is decidedly not all up there on the screen, given they weren’t paying for Marvel-sized visual effects, period costume and production design, or DiCaprio-level star salaries. (My mouth waters with the idea of how many of my el cheapo indie scripts I could produce, market and distribute with $22 million. I mean…) Call BROS a failed experiment; I call it a missed opportunity. If studios reserved even a fraction of BROS’ budget for specifically targeted, character-driven movies, filmmakers like Eichner could let their true intentions exist as more than market-driven subtext. An opening weekend of $5 million wouldn’t look so bad.
I once pitched a screenplay of mine about a pissed-off, cynical gay public defender confronting – via a crime procedural, natch – his hostile feelings towards other gay men to a prominent gay producer. He told me he loved the idea, that the themes I was addressing were important, and that he hoped the script got produced, but that he didn’t “know how to make this movie.” From my vantage point, this statement was untrue, given that about 10 years earlier, he had indeed produced a comparable film in both subject matter and potential budget, winning the film a couple of Oscars in the process. Let me be clear: I respect this guy, and I respect the kind of movies he puts his name on, which is why I pitched him in the first place. And I’m not an idiot, I understood what he meant. Given the present climate in Hollywood, where even a $100-million slice of superhero IP can get dumped as a tax write-off, and even Steven Spielberg can direct a well-reviewed flop, this producer didn’t know how to turn my unsentimental homo script into a viable commercial enterprise. Who is the audience for that movie? For better or worse, I had an answer, albeit not one I told him, nor one I would ever say out loud if asked in any other pitch meeting.
The audience for that movie is me, bro. The audience is me.