Historic Gay Rom-Com or Force-Feeding ‘Cultural Vegetables’? Why Billy Eichner’s ‘Bros’ Has Divided the LGBTQ Community

No romantic comedy should feel like homework, and yet the conversation that has engulfed Billy Eichner and Universal’s “Bros” after its disappointing opening weekend at the box office concerns whether a movie that billed itself as groundbreaking and historic truly earns the label, to the point that even many LGBTQ audiences haven’t bought into that narrative.

There are a number of reasons why “Bros” underperformed at the box office, grossing just $4.8 million on a modest $22 million production budget. But the “Bros” discourse that has been the talk of Twitter this past week has centered on how the dominant discussion about the film has been the heavy-handed marketing around its status as the first major studio rom-com with a fully LGBTQ+ cast given a wide theatrical release.

That approach clearly hasn’t don’t “Bros” any favors, particularly among critics in the LGBTQ community, with at least one critic, freelance writer Kyle Turner, telling TheWrap that the marketing campaign made “Bros” seem like an “obligation” or even a “cultural vegetable.”

“It’s very strange to have that be both the text of the film and then also have that be part of the marketing rhetoric without necessarily earning any of that,” said Turner, whose work has appeared in W Magazine, GQ and the New York Times. “The film is asking them to reward it with a sense of prestige that it hasn’t necessarily earned.”

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In fact, Turner said the “sense of self-importance” in the “Bros” marketing made it feel as though “going to see it is somehow going to radically change the material lives of LGBTQ people, as opposed to recognizing that going to see a movie is not necessarily an actual political action.”

Bowen Yang, the “SNL” star who makes a cameo in “Bros,” even acknowledged on his podcast “Las Culturistas” that the historical baggage of the film “grated” on him and that he became “detached from it very early on,” fearing whether the film could live up to that hype. “You kind of look back on it and think, ‘How could it ever possibly occasion itself to that thing?'” Yang said on the podcast, released after the dismal opening weekend. “It was tough to see it all spun [in a] very specific way that I feel like set itself up for disappointment.”

Yang’s podcast co-host Matt Rogers chimed in with his own disappointment about the film’s promotional thrust. “It’s a shame the narrative couldn’t just be that this is so f—ing funny and good,” Rogers said. “Because the whole media narrative was so front loaded with ‘This is important,’ and it almost became like a mandate, and this is how we advance this.”

"Fire Island" (2022)
The cast of Joel Kim Booster’s (center) LGBTQ comedy “Fire Island” (Hulu)

The discourse about the film’s significance tethered to its box office performance only got louder when Eichner faced backlash for his Sunday tweet that “Everyone who ISN’T a homophobic weirdo should go see ‘Bros’ tonight!” Earlier in the film’s press cycle, he also remarked that “Bros” “is not some streaming thing which feels disposable” — which many took as a slight against Hulu’s “Fire Island,” a gay comedy with an Asian lead that did not get the “historic” marketing push but scored even bigger critical acclaim (94% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to 89% for “Bros”).

The conflict escalated to the point that “Fire Island” star Joel Kim Booster weighed in, calling Eichner’s comments “pretty inarticulate” and begging fans to “enjoy both or neither of our movies without pitting them against each other.” (Eichner later clarified his comments and apologized). As a result, it wasn’t just the right-wing trolls who lashed back at Eichner but also gay critics who most closely identified with Eichner’s character.

Others urged some perspective — and how gay-themed films can bomb at the box office without it being a blow to the movement. “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,” L.A. Times’ Matt Brennan wrote. “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.”

And despite the glowing score on Rotten Tomatoes or its equally impressive A CinemaScore from the audiences that did see it, praise for “Bros” has not been unanimous.

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“‘Bros’ is a film that is content to be up its own ass and a leading man (and co-creator) who will continue to spend every waking hour reminding us how important he and his film are. It’s a film that’s just as desperate to be loved and seen as important as its protagonist and there are many audiences and critics alike who will validate that need for adoration. That desperation is a large part of what makes ‘Bros’ as tiresome as it is,” Juan Barquin wrote for the blog Into.

Eichner personally has borne much of the brunt of the film’s criticism online, and he joked that he simultaneously has been called “too hot AND not hot enough to star in a movie inspired by my own life.” His brand of shouting at people on the streets of New York about pop culture trivia has been heralded as ingenious satire by some and simply annoying by others, and some have even taken to recirculating one of Eichner’s less flattering moments from his own show to prove their point. But critics felt that alone should not have excluded him from getting his own movie or believe his part should’ve gone to someone like Dan Levy, as some online have suggested.

“He’s done a lot of great work. But yeah, I think that he might be a little polarizing, because he may not be for everybody. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t be a leading man,” said Matthew Creith, a freelance writer and member of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. “Somebody like Amy Schumer, who was also another Judd Apatow product in her own way with ‘Trainwreck,’ she might have been a polarizing figure at one point.”

A rep for Eichner had no comment for this story.

Paul Rudd and Billy Eichner in "Billy on the Street" for "Bros" (2022)
Billy Eichner (right) revived his show “Billy on the Street” to get the word out about “Bros,” recruiting stars such as Paul Rudd, Jack Black and more to make straight audiences aware of the film (Twitter)

Creith was also let down by the film’s marketing that emphasized the reactions of white stars like Chris Evans and Sarah Paulson while downplaying less nonwhite talent, including the film’s BIPOC supporting cast. “I don’t think it resonated with anyone outside of maybe the white gay male community,” Creith said of the marketing efforts. “They put a lot of effort into it, but I don’t think that they put a lot of effort into having points of view from other kind of non-white actors and very famous people trying to help market the film and I think that did a very big disservice.”

Turner too felt that the film’s plot revolving around an LGBTQ+ history museum was itself a plot device there solely “to write the film into history, part of its press tour self importance, and an attempt to give its audience that history lesson,” and that too didn’t help the film’s diverse cast.

“There’s a dissonance there between its desire to be historic and how that’s actually articulated in respect to conversations around whose stories, within the queer community, should have space to be told,” Turner said. “Those non-white and non-male characters are not tokens, per se, but their presence is in direct relation to Bobby; they have no real arc of their own. I think skeptics infer that from the marketing and, thus, may be disinclined to see it.”

Universal did not respond to a request for comment on this piece.

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Guy Branum, one of the film’s co-stars, did some damage control on that front this week, arguing in a tweet thread that so much of the discourse has overlooked the film’s diverse casting. Branum noted that while Eichner could have followed the Apatow model of casting bigger stars around its less-famous lead — as Schumer’s “Trainwreck” did with Bill Hader, John Cena and LeBron James — Eichner took the risk to surround himself with lesser-known LGBTQ stars.

“When you pat yourself on the back for resisting the tokenizing, condescending marketing for the film, Also acknowledge that @billyeichner held the door open for a lot of other, diverse queer people, and this movie doing poorly at the box office limits the opportunities which will be in our future,” he wrote.

Ts Madison, one of the BIPOC co-stars of the film, was also defended the movie at the “Bros” world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival when one woman during the Q&A asked why a film that claimed to be so historic would cast two cis white guys as the leads? “Listen, we all know, honey, that it takes the folks to get us in the door to make it do what it do,” Madison said. “That’s why when ‘Bros 2’ comes, I’m going to have way more lines than I had in this motherf—er, and I’m writing all the dirty parts and you’re gonna see all types of color all up and through this motherf—er.”

But for as much as Eichner has tweeted about “Bros” making history, he’s also been plenty clear that the real goal was to make a movie people could ultimately relate to and enjoy.

“I wanted it to be authentic, I wanted LGTBQ folks and gay men to see it on a big screen and say, there we are, that’s who we are. Not all of us, because we’re not a monolithic group. But I really wanted it to be honest,” Eichner said during the film’s Toronto premiere. “But above all we all wanted it to be really funny. We really felt the responsibility to make a movie that would really make people laugh out loud a lot.”

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