Commentary: The real lesson of 'Bros': It's OK to let gay art bomb

Luke Macfarlane, left, and Billy Eichner in "Bros."
Here comes the kiss: Luke Macfarlane, left, and Billy Eichner in "Bros." (Universal Pictures via Associated Press)

I didn’t want to write this piece. I didn’t want to diminish “the first major studio movie written by and starring a gay man” or spoil its Rotten Tomatoes score or dance on the grave of its box-office prospects.

I certainly didn’t want to attack the star of “Billy on the Street” and “Difficult People,” two of the most successful screen adaptations of the gay sensibility in recent memory. But Billy Eichner forced my hand.

No one wants to support a movie at the point of a bayonet.

It’s not just straight people who failed to show up for Eichner’s rom-com “Bros” on opening weekend who might be feeling the pinch. As Variety pointed out in its autopsy of the film’s box office flop, its dreadful $4.8-million take “means many LGBTQ viewers didn’t show up to see the comedy in theaters either.”

Does that make us too the “homophobic weirdos” of Eichner’s confounding post-bomb tweet spiral or simply the silent Benedict Arnolds of his self-proclaimed march into the history books?

“Even with glowing reviews, great Rotten Tomatoes scores, an A CinemaScore etc, straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up for Bros. And that’s disappointing but it is what it is,” Eichner wrote Sunday in response to news of the returns.

Eichner could be forgiven for throwing a misplaced elbow or two in the aftermath of such a crushing disappointment. But the sense of self-importance and, yes, entitlement in his response dovetails with the film’s rollout. Before its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, he bragged that "Bros" “is not an indie movie. This is not some streaming thing which feels disposable, or which is like one of a million Netflix shows. I needed to appreciate, ‘This is a historic moment, and somehow, you’re at the center of it. You helped create it.’” (His shady remarks weren't lost on fans of Hulu's "Fire Island," even prompting its creator, Joel Kim Booster, to respond publicly and defuse the backlash.)

"You’re at the center of it": Here were words to stick in one’s craw, to suggest that, as well-versed as Eichner may be in the traditions of the rom-com, his understanding of queer history on screen had momentarily escaped him. It is precisely the indies, the “disposable” experiments, the made-for-TV movies and forgotten genre entries, in which LGBTQ people established themselves in the American imagination before there was a name for us. No one person, or cultural artifact, is at the center of that generations-long struggle, to which Eichner has referred again and again in his press tour for the film — or indeed, as the box office wags pointed out, on which Universal Pictures’ marketing campaign leaned with such misplaced abandon.

In truth, "Bros" is not nearly so radical as it claims, and that disjuncture between what it is — a perfectly entertaining, middlebrow rom-com — and what it understands itself to be — a landmark moment for LGBTQ people in popular culture — is inextricable from the hand-wringing around it. It is eminently laudable that Eichner has made a sexually frank studio comedy featuring two gay men, and that he insisted, as wingman/co-star/co-producer Guy Branum notes, on an all-LGBTQ cast.

Ultimately, though, the film's innovations are incremental: Rather than reinvent the genre around a different set of mores, it simply replaces the "marriage plot" with the "monogamy plot," down to our former free-agent hero being harangued by his new beau about kids.

It's especially frustrating because "Bros" knows better, or seems to. Its lacerating send-ups of token representation in Hallmark Christmas movies; the "haunted house of gay trauma" that pop culture passes off as queer history; even Eichner's own public persona are all a potent, knowing nod to the ongoing challenges of telling LGBTQ stories — of living LGBTQ lives — without simply repurposing a tired, old, straight script.

Until the culminating frame of its final act, that is, when the image of two conventionally attractive gay men kissing is positioned, literally, as the laudatory bookend to "5,000 years of gay love stories erased from the history books." For a film otherwise allergic to moralizing, this sure seems like "old-fashioned heteronormative nonsense" to me.

It is often said, of course, that we dislike in others that which we most dislike in ourselves, and it’s impossible to see “Bros” — its arrogance, its failure, its enlightened intentions and benighted outcomes — without feeling implicated in it. I am of Eichner’s generation, or close to it; of his race, his gender, his sexuality, his industry, his city. I am the person meant to “see myself” in “Bros,” to be “represented” by it, to celebrate the “milestone” it marks. I am, in the sense of the term that suggests affiliation, his “type,” and he mine — I am reasonably sure, after seeing the film twice, that I have woofed at his shirtless torso on Scruff in Los Angeles.

And yet, despite the affinities Eichner and I share on paper — no, because of the affinities we share on paper — I recoil at “Bros’” squandered privilege, bristle at its star’s attempt to hide its shortcomings behind the veil of homophobia. After all, if the film believes in the progress it celebrates — that of setting our own terms, of deciding for ourselves — then it must earn the support it seeks and not merely expect it.

In the quarter century since “Will & Grace,” whose Debra Messing makes an ingenious cameo in "Bros," the very forms Eichner appeared to dismiss in his eagerness for theatrical triumph have carved out the space for LGBTQ people to choose among numerous options instead of clinging to every scrap of queer representation as though it were a life raft in storm-tossed seas.

The freedom "Bros" extols, or tries to, is not just sexual freedom. It is the freedom to fight over, criticize, even ignore the artworks that claim to represent us — and, on the flip side, the freedom to keep making and consuming gay art whether straight people show up for it or not.

Indeed, when I saw the film a second time this week, at a half-full weeknight screening at the Sunset 5, what struck me most were the loudest laughs and cheers, all directed at the gayest material — the slap fight-turned-sex scene, the Bowen Yang cameo, Nicole Kidman's pre-roll ad for AMC.

"Bros," a film expressly about the refusal to butch up one's voice for a straight audience, isn't for everyone, and it doesn't need to be. It can be for us, to argue about on Twitter or at the bar before "Drag Race," outside the circuit party, during our own dates (or orgies). And it can be for us to decide it's not worth our time or our money, that we would rather watch some other queer film or TV series out of love, instead of watching this one out of obligation.

To say “let gay art bomb” is not to say “let gay art languish.” It need not mean that we stop pressing film studios and television networks for more, and more thoughtful, LGBTQ representation. It need not mean that Eichner be kept from another shot. It's simply a reminder that — not only for gay art but for art, full stop — commercial failure has often been a sign of creative success. It is through the push and pull of the popular and the avant-garde, the acclaimed and reviled, the celebrated and the suspect, that we arrived at the place where "Bros" could sink or swim.

May the next quarter century bring still bigger swings, still more revolutionary incursions into the mainstream, still more films and TV series "too gay, too niche" for straight audiences and not gay enough — never gay enough — for us. That's progress.

Bombs away.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.