Billy Eichner’s claim to fame has always rested on his outrageous causticity. The Viral Series Host Billy in the street, Eichner would storm into New York City, holding a microphone in one hand and often dragging a celebrity along with the other, barking questions at passers-by. He usually pushed them to be rude by demanding that they spread pop culture takes or just “name a womanI enjoyed Eichner’s work for many years, and in those days always knew it as a five-minute burst of comic intensity. One of the joys of his new film, Brotherswatch him successfully develop that charm over a span of nearly two hours.
Eichner plays and co-writes Brothers with its director, Nicholas Stoller. The film is quite significant – the first major theatrical release from a major studio to feature an all-LGBTQ main cast, it offers a rare and candid depiction of sexuality. But even without these breakthroughs, Brothers is a breath of fresh air for cinemas in 2022, given that few rom-coms make it to the big screen amid the crowds of action blockbusters. These days, rom-coms often go straight to streaming or, at best, simulcast releases (think Marry me, I want you to come backand Fire Island this year only), no matter the subject or the movie stars involved. Brothers is a robust entry into the genre, and Eichner a wonderful, surprisingly introspective man.
Bobby Lieber (Eichner’s character) is bursting with the actor’s hectic energy. Like many Judd Apatow-produced comedies, including The big sick and The King of Staten Island, Brothers has one foot in reality; the lead mined his personal life and translated it to the public through a recognizable rom-com structure. Eichner’s protagonist struggles with his dignity as a romantic partner. On the surface, Brothers is driven by the charming courtship between Bobby and a handsome lawyer named Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), but the film’s real stakes lie in Bobby’s own recognition of himself as someone deserving of committed love.
I like my romantic comedies short and sweet—When Harry Met Sally is 95 minutes long and doesn’t miss a beat, but Apatow’s productions have always been long, emphasizing hirsute sequences of off-the-cuff discussions and letting the plot meander in the name of realism. There’s a succinct and hard-hitting 90-minute romantic comedy inside Brothers it would simply focus on Bobby and Aaron overcoming their respective commitment phobias as they fall in love with each other. But I found the narrative space forgivable, because Brothers‘ Big Tangents mostly struggles with the curious idea that gay romance still feels like a milestone in today’s cinematic landscape.
Simply put, why has it taken so long for a movie like this to exist? Brothers is pretty cheerful and down-to-earth about gay sex, thank goodness; it doesn’t seem explicitly designed to satisfy – without shocking – straight audiences, looking for more box office dollars. When Brothers begins, Bobby is a 40-year-old man who has never had a serious relationship. He attributes this to not wanting to conform to heteronormative expectations, oppressive body standards he feels he can’t meet, and the general craziness of the New York dating pool. His analysis is insightful, but the script also allows for self-criticism; a lot of Brothers looks like a funny therapy session.
Bobby is a podcaster and chair of a committee to open the nation’s first-ever LGBTQ museum. He’s both overwhelmed and empowered by the story he’s steeped in, and when he begins dating Aaron, he’s somewhat overwhelmed with how to reconcile their small-scale differences with his larger view of how whose gay culture should work. A good part of Bobby’s journey is to reject his preconceptions. Macfarlane is sweet and appealing as the heartbroken and disarming Aaron, but he’s also inscrutable, struggling to fit into Bobby’s life and explain why they might not work out in the long run. So many rom-coms rely on tedious twists and turns to separate their characters before bringing them together, but all the ups and downs of Brothers‘romance feels emotionally necessary.
Along with that catharsis, thankfully, there are plenty of real good jokes – something a number of comedies oddly forget to point out these days. Eichner is among the best at throwing tangy, tangy one-liners (his quick wit made the Hulu series difficult people an explosion), and Brothers never let the scenes get too heady or polemical without slipping in a few amusing asides. This balance, and Eichner’s generally hyperactive on-screen style, keeps the momentum going for Brothers‘ the whole arc without sacrificing the poignancy of the film.