Bros ★★★★½

Since it’s the 110th anniversary of the first film to depict an unlikely gay romance between a persnickety, uptight fop and a super butch man’s-man with a heart of gold, I thought I’d mark the occasion by finally writing my Bros review. 

I have a theory about why Bros kinda flopped at the box office. It’s because it was marketed as an audience-friendly gay rom-com when in fact it was super-sophisticated, aggressively queer, art house deconstruction of the whole genre of the romantic comedy itself. I don’t think this was Billy Eichner’s goal. I think he fully intended to make a commercially viable studio film that really would end up demonstrating that gay love stories could attract a mass audience. The problem was that he’s just too fucking queer to make it work. There’s just something at the core of his psyche as an irredeemably “bad gay” that prevented him from creating a truly audience-friendly product, Judd Apatow’s assist notwithstanding. 

By this I mean that at the end of the day, he just couldn’t really take any of it seriously enough. Lots of critics have commented on the self-referentiality of all the film’s overt references to straight rom-com classics, but they’ve consigned those moments to parenthetical asides instead of registering their actual function: to transform the whole film into a deeply cynical, meta-cinematic exercise in which absolutely nothing is sacred, including the idea that “love triumphs over all,” which is the one article of faith you can’t question if you hope to convince your audience of your sincere good intentions. Once you’ve put so many quotation marks around our culture’s most cherished myths of “true love,” you can’t really scrub them away at the end, no matter how hard you try. 

Eichner has always styled himself as an obnoxious gadfly, and after seeing this film, I’ve come to think that it’s not all just an act he does for Billy on the Street or Difficult People. His relentless brow-beating of the LGBTQ community on Twitter during the film’s launch — at one point telling us that we’re “homophobic” if we didn’t go see the movie in theaters — didn’t exactly endear him to a lot of my friends. And he’s taken a fair amount of heat from the various internal factions of the community for not “centering” non-cis-white-male stories or treating their representatives in the film with enough sensitivity and deference. And while his character expresses a justifiable political rage throughout the film, there’s a counter-tendency in Eichner/Apatow’s handling of the story which works to undermine the seriousness of his even his most heartfelt personal confessions. 

You might think that because of what I’ve said so far about Eichner’s performative style (relentless irony, elevating the trivial over the serious, always viewing even the most sacred identity claims with a jaundiced eye), that I’d want to put him in the uppermost echelon of the modern camp canon. And you wouldn’t be wrong, but I’d also want to carve out a narrower niche for what he’s doing — something I’d describe as “rageful absurdism.” Part of why he doesn’t fit neatly into the established patterns of camp is that his sensibility is as Jewish as it is gay. In his hyper-intense, self-deprecating, exaggerated neuroticism we can certainly see the influences of a distinctly Jewish strain of humor that runs at least from Woody Allen through Larry David to Judd Apatow himself. In her 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag declares that “the two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.” What she doesn’t discuss is what might happen when these two, apparently opposed cultural sensibilities are combined. The answer is Billy Eichner. 

His absurdism takes hold in the space when the Venn diagram of these two worldviews overlap. From the zone of Jewish sensibility, there’s a deep sense of tragi-comic fatalism, a profound suspicion that nothing is as settled as it might seem in the moment and that some unforeseen, unaccounted for catastrophe might turn over the apple cart when you least expect it. The “moral seriousness” and intellectualism are there too, in ways that are obvious enough in Eichner’s character’s acute historical awareness and fierce political commitments. But this all informs his comic absurdism when it becomes the fuel for maintaining his own outsider status, at the expense of achieving “normal” happiness as defined by the dominant culture. When this comes into contact with a camp sensibility — and its defining refusal to take any of the fictions of identity seriously —what you’re left with is an especially potent strain of existential angst. 

In a word, Eichner’s sensibility is vitriolic, in ways that can readily be perceived by mainstream audiences as “obnoxious” or even toxic. His absurdism has a corrosive effect on the very foundations of “romance” and its attendant generic conventions, and when his film so unflinchingly explores all the ways in which modern gay coupling does not adhere to those conventions, he ends up compromising the structural integrity of the genre as a whole. Personally, I’m here for it, but also get why mainstream viewers, even the gay ones, would be scared off.

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