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Gay rom-com 'Bros' is light and bright while making movie history

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For years, Hollywood's major studios have tiptoed around the idea of a mainstream gay romantic comedy without ever quite committing. Well, now there is commitment. Billy Eichner's "Bros" is a multimillion-dollar, big studio, Judd Apatow-produced, R-rated rom-com with an almost entirely gay cast, and it's opening this weekend on more than 3,000 screens. Critic Bob Mondello says what's remarkable about "Bros" is how unremarkable its arrival feels.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You know the rom-com drill - main character surrounded by married friends...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

BILLY EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) So what's happening? Didn't you guys have an announcement?

PETER KIM: (As Peter) This is a little unexpected but we are in a throuple (ph) situation.

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) You're in a throuple?

MONDELLO: ...Says relationships are lame...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) Let me tell you what's progressive now. Being alone. I love my life. I love my freedom. I love my independence.

JUSTIN COVINGTON: (As Paul) That's kind of sad.

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) That I don't want to be in a throuple? I don't even want to be in a couple.

MONDELLO: ...Goes to party and communes with gay friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

GUY BRANUM: (As Henry) Bobby, I had sex with that 65-year-old.

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) Jesus. He's ripped.

BRANUM: (As Henry) I know. It's like they injected steroids into Dumbledore.

MONDELLO: And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

BRANUM: (As Henry) Oh, my God. That's Aaron. He's very hot.

MONDELLO: ...Something just clicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

LUKE MACFARLANE: (As Aaron Shepard) Gay guys are so stupid.

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) I know. But we've been smart enough to brand ourselves as being smart.

MACFARLANE: (As Aaron Shepard) To our little secret.

MONDELLO: And immediately, whatever they have going on gets short-circuited so that complications can ensue. Gay or straight, the formula is the same. In this case, the problem is that irritable Bobby, played by Billy Eichner, and muscle gay Aaron, played by Luke Macfarlane, are both commitment avoiders. But their specifics don't matter as much as their chemistry while texting, say.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) Honestly, I was impressed. You may be more emotionally unavailable than I am.

MACFARLANE: (As Aaron Shepard) Well, maybe we can be emotionally unavailable together.

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) Maybe we can be emotionally unavailable together? Who's writing your texts, Maroon 5? Kidding. We can go out. Are you asking me out?

MACFARLANE: (As Aaron Shepard) I'm down for whatever.

MONDELLO: It does occur to them at some point that they are basically updating "You've Got Mail" here, and there are references to the Hallmark Channel and "When Harry Met Sally," "Schitt's Creek" and other rom-coms and sitcoms, because that's part of 21st century dating, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

MACFARLANE: (As Aaron Shepard) Whatever, whenever. GIF of Michael Scott dancing. That's good.

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) "Office" GIF? This person isn't gay.

MONDELLO: So far, definitely so funny, and the laughs remain pretty constant in a script that Eichner wrote with director Nick Stoller as not just a rom-com, but a bit of an explainer. Bobby is the head of an LGBTQ museum, which allows a lot of jokes about gay history.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

JIM RASH: (As Robert) You can't say Lincoln was gay.

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) If we don't do this, we're letting the heterosexual terrorists win.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There are trans terrorists too - Caitlyn Jenner.

MONDELLO: The filmmakers also do some calculated give-the-audience-credit non-explaining about Grindr, poppers and the support that straight allies offer rather sweetly in this day and age.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

GUILLERMO DIAZ: (As Edgar) Well, is he a top or bottom?

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) What does that have to do with anything?

DIAZ: (As Edgar) Maybe you're both bottoms, and that's the problem.

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) I'm not always the bottom, Edgar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Bottom dance.

MONICA RAYMUND: (As Tina) Oh, bottom dance.

MONDELLO: Cue the whole family swiveling hips.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) Oh, my God. Gay sex was more fun when straight people were uncomfortable with it.

MONDELLO: More fun, maybe, but less likely to be included in a major studio crowd pleaser. The producers are betting straight audiences will be comfortable. And after a couple of decades of gay characters on TV, that's probably a safe bet. What matters, though, isn't really whether a rom-com is gay, but whether it's fun. And in "Bros," Eichner and Macfarlane are fun, whether wrestling in Central Park...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

MACFARLANE: (As Aaron Shepard) There you are.

MONDELLO: ...Or sparring at a dance party...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

EICHNER: (As Bobby Leiber) What are you into, one of these ripped idiots with no opinions?

MACFARLANE: (As Aaron Shepard) No, I'd like someone who's physically very frail and won't stop talking.

MONDELLO: ...Or just walking hand in hand in a rom-com montage. There's a certain amount of pressure on "Bros" in commercial terms. Will audiences show up? Will studios make more like it? But you don't feel that pressure when watching it. It's light and bright and just by existing gets to call itself history-making with - you should pardon the expression - a straight face. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY TO LOVE")

QUEEN: (Singing) Every day, I try and I try and I try. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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