One of the most discussed topics in our conversations at Mr Feelgood is the ‘v-word’. I’m not talking about the female anatomy, there are other digital destinations for that, but vulnerability. And it’s a subject at the heart of ‘Bros’; a razor-sharp, hilarious, and groundbreaking film — the first romantic comedy about two gay men by a major Hollywood studio.
The hotly anticipated movie, released in theaters today, was co-written by gay comedian Billy Eichner, who also stars as New York-based podcaster Bobby, and ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ scribe Nick Stoller, who also directs. The boy-meets-boy story goes something like this: Crotchety, cynical Bobby spots sweet, shirtless probate lawyer Aaron — played by Hallmark hunk Luke Macfarlane — in a gay club, and the two relationship skeptics slowly lower their guards and fall in love.
While the movie is earning deserved plaudits for capturing the uniqueness of their same-sex romance in all its beautiful, messy glory, it also touches on issues that are shared by so many men, and are central to why we launched Mr Feelgood two years ago. Essentially, identifying and celebrating the best of modern masculinity, while figuring out how to navigate life without letting its more destructive elements get in our way.
“Our first hook-up scene really forecasts the future of this relationship,” says Luke, as we chat on the eve of the film’s theatrical release (after which he will never again be described as Hallmark hunk, but a Hollywood star instead!). “It begins in this sort of shoving match, because as the title suggests we are two ‘bros’; these tough, unavailable guys who need to be wrestled into submission. And then that energy transfers into something a bit more tender and intimate, and that’s the journey these two guys go on.
“I don’t think that’s unlike a lot of straight men. Men front with a lot of masculinity and toughness, and think the girl wants somebody who can carry her over the threshold. And that’s very lovely too; strength is also important, and masculinity is not under threat. But in order to fall deeply in love with someone, you need to remove that wall of toughness and really open yourself up.”
Luke has what seems like a very healthy masculinity. When we first connect over Zoom, the Canadian-American hockey fan immediately strikes me as fighting fit, and dressed exactly as I imagined him; in a baseball cap and slim-fitting t-shirt. He chats from his kitchen where he is peeling some eggs (a very manly source of sustenance to be peeling!). “I love being a man, and I am very comfortable being a man,” he adds. “There’s a bit of a misconception that gay men wish they were women on some level, and I have conversations with my mother explaining the difference between gender identity and sexuality. Because they are very separate things, but have become so incredibly linked.”
Reviews of ‘Bros’ are overwhelmingly extremely positive, and it has the potential to be a seismic moment for the movie business, and change what stories get greenlit by major studios in the future. It reminds me of the 2011 comedy ‘Bridesmaids’; a big, bold, brash riot of an R-rated event movie, which is best watched in a raucous theater with a gang of — perhaps mildly inebriated — pals. And those similarities are no coincidence, with the comedy powerhouse Judd Apatow producing both films. Eichner and Stoller took the idea to Apatow’s production company, and it was his hands-on involvement that helped to get the movie made and released by Universal Pictures, earning the same premium level of promotion afforded to the rest of his stellar stable of comedies, from ‘Knocked Up’ to ‘This Is 40’ and beyond. We’ve had indie gay rom-coms before, and a few on streaming platforms, but none supported by the full weight of the Hollywood big studio machine.
But among the deserved praise, including for its entirely LGBTQ+ principal cast, there has been some criticism that ‘Bros’ — shooting for box office-friendly, mass appeal; and with two straight men in Apatow and Stoller alongside Eichner at its helm — has had to tone down the gay experience to be palatable for a straight audience. I tell Luke that I, for one straight viewer, loved feeling included in its crude laughs, and happy tears ending, and believe that telling stories that also appeals to folks who are different to those being depicted on screen is how change and progress is made.
“I did see one headline that called it a ‘sterilized’ gay portrait, to which I say when was the last time you saw a movie with multiple three-ways and four-ways?” says Luke. Good point, well made. “It is very difficult to appeal to everyone in any group that is as diverse and large as the LGBTQ group, but I think we have done a very good job of that. And it doesn’t feel sterilized to me in the depiction of sex, or in the depiction of love. I think in a weird way we have become so used to seeing gay films that focus on the suffering, the closet, the illness, so it’s almost shocking that we get a real love story. Because I can’t remember another gay movie that let the gay couple be happy.”
Like all mainstream comedies, the film does fall back on stereotypes for laughs, of course. And yes, the story contains plenty of typical rom-com tropes. But these arcs are widely used for a reason, they work and viewers recognize them in themselves. ‘Bros’ leans into the conventional rom-com formula on purpose; this familiarity allows the film to appeal to fans of Apatow and Stoller’s other work — with a groundbreaking difference at its ripped core. And for me, another strength of the movie (which has been attacked as something akin to ‘gaysplaining’ by a few critical voices in the community) is the way it taught me a little more, through humor, about the challenges facing gay men as they navigate the world of love and relationships. Group sex is large source of laughs in the movie, for example, but we also delve a little deeper, and learn that Luke’s character Aaron prefers his encounters that way because he is scared by the intimacy of one-on-one intercourse.
Luke describes how the challenges that face Aaron — who has climbed the corporate ladder as a lawyer, but wants to be a chocolatier — are shared by many others in the gay community. “Like a lot of gay men I know in my life, Aaron has worked very hard. He’s worked hard at his career, he’s got a high-paying job, a really nice apartment, and he’s worked hard on his body because he wants to look a certain way. There’s this idea, I think it’s called the ‘best boy’ syndrome, where if you’re gay you have to do everything really, really well or you won’t get recognized. So young gay people often get very good at multiple disciplines so they can fit in and be successful, even though inside they don’t fit in at all. And I think Aaron is a lot like that. But he also has that very universal problem, of getting everything that you think you’re supposed to have, but you’re still missing one thing — someone to share it with. And it turns out that is the most complicated thing to achieve because it comes back to vulnerability again, and truly opening yourself up to what you want.”
The the film’s co-writer Eichner and his character Bobby are closely related; as Luke says, the project is very much “his baby.” In the opening scenes, we are introduced to Bobby as the host of a podcast for the queer community, who is opening a museum about gay history, and once tried and failed to write same-sex rom-com for Hollywood. “We want a rom-com about a gay couple,” the big-shot movie producer tells Bobby. “Something a straight guy might even like and watch with his girlfriend.” And the meta references keep coming throughout, often to brilliant comic effect. ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ — the kind of vintage rom-com that ‘Bros’ is trying to emulate — plays on Bobby’s TV, while real-life film-goers who like to accompany their popcorn with a deep internet dive will learn that ‘Bros’ composer Marc Shaiman arranged music for that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan classic as well. Social media, our obsession with ‘storytelling’, and straight actors playing gay roles to win Oscars are among the many aspects of modern life skewered by Eichner, who made his name with this brand of pop-culture-reference-heavy humor in his comedy game show ‘Billy on the Street’. “Gay culture in general has this razor-sharp focus on media,” Luke says. “I think it comes from being a culture that is always looking for how it fits in.”
Another staple of American life which finds itself a target of Eichner’s friendly fire is Hallmark movies — fitting as his co-star Luke is something of an expert. Over the last decade, Luke has starred in 14 of the romantic, usually festive, weepies; from ‘A Shoe Addict’s Christmas’ to ‘Sense, Sensibility and Snowmen’. I’m surprised to discover all the Hallmark jokes were in the script before it made its way to him. So it certainly seems to prove, as we learn in these sugary TV flicks, that some things are just meant to be.
“I was sent the script almost three years ago now, and I immediately knew that this was a really good part for me,” Luke, 42, recalls. “I made a list in my head of all the other guys I was going to see at the audition, the people I had competed against throughout my career. And when I walked in, they were all sitting there. But I went into the room, and Judd Apatow, Nick Stoller and Billy were all in there — and it felt like a really good fit. I had never met Billy, but it immediately felt like we understood each other. I could see all his insecurities, and I think he could see all of mine. When we were reading, he kept saying things like, ‘This bit isn’t quite right,’ and, ‘This line might change.’ But it was easy for me to alleviate his anxiety, and tell him his script was hilarious, which it really was. Talking about vulnerability, try writing the story of your life, and then get people to make it.”
In the movie, as in his real life, both of Eichner’s parents have passed away. And elements of Eichner’s on and off-screen persona are so intertwined that neither Luke or I can remember if a particularly poignant line I recall him saying — that it was a shame his parents weren’t alive to see opportunities for their gay son finally improve — was in the film or an interview he has given on its promotional tour. As for Luke, I wonder if this blurring of the lines between his personal and work life as his profile grows may make it harder for him to play straight romantic leads, as he typically has in his Hallmark offerings, in the future. “That’s a great question, and I certainly hope I am still offered opportunities to play straight characters,” he says. Luke has recently wrapped his last movie in his multi-film Hallmark deal, and is excited for the future. He’s staying humble, but knows underneath that being a bona fide Hollywood star will open more doors than it closes. “Hallmark and I are in the early stages of developing an original script together. So that’s cool, they’ve been very good to me. And I just finished filming a series for Apple TV, called ‘Platonic’, alongside Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen. Rose plays my wife, and we have three kids together, then she connects with her old friend, played by Seth, and that friendship throws their whole marriage. It goes back to that conversation in ‘When Harry Met Sally…’, when Harry says to Sally, ‘Men can’t be friends with women, because on some level they want to f*** them.'”
Despite playing the whole gamut of straight male archetypes during his Hallmark movie career, Luke’s sexuality has been public knowledge since 2008. He was playing Scotty Wandell in the ABC drama ‘Brothers and Sisters’ when his character married Kevin Walker, played by Matthew Rhys, in what was a headline-worthy storyline at the time, when considerably less gay characters were on TV. (2008 is one year pre-‘Glee’, more on ‘Glee’ in a moment.) Knowing the on-screen romance would spark questions about his own private life, he decided to come out in his local Toronto paper, The Globe and Mail. “The thing that I was determined to never become was a liar,” he says. “Because the moment you do that, it starts to eat you inside. It starts to ruin your soul; and as an actor, that’s a pretty important thing to keep intact.”
Luke says he will “never know” how that decision affected his career, and in another interview on the ‘Bros’ publicity trail he revealed he was told by an agent that “Superman can’t be gay.” But while it came a little too late for Eichner to show his parents, it is pleasing that now, 13 years after coming out, Luke can play a gay romantic lead in a major Hollywood movie. Or to frame this progress another way, Luke paraphrases one of Bobby’s most cutting lines from the ‘Bros’ script, “Gay kids now have ‘Glee’. We had AIDS.”
Our conversation now moves on to wellness, and while Luke’s physical strength is clear for all to see, and central to the plot of ‘Bros’, his mental fitness appears just as impressive. “I’m just lucky that I’m doing my first studio film press tour as a 40-plus-year-old guy,” he says. “Because when I think about the strange pressures that come along with talking about yourself, I think about my 20-year-old self and go, ‘Oh boy, I would not have handled this well.’ But I’ve had whole life to figure out who I am, how to take care of myself, how to get to sleep, how to not drink too much.” He then shares something that he has not previously discussed on the aforementioned press tour, which has flown him around the media world for the last month. “I’ve not talked about this with anybody, but I’m a regular congregate of an Anglican church in my community. I found a beautiful church close to me in Los Angeles, called St James Episcopal Church, and we have a gay female rector, and a trans rector, and they have been wonderful. During the pandemic, I started volunteering at their soup kitchen and becoming more involved in the neighborhood. That sense of belonging to a community is also really important.”
I ask him a little more about his faith, and whether it’s something he has always had in his life. His answer, like the reality for so many of us, is not clear cut. “I don’t know where I stand with it on a day to day basis,” he admits. “But I like to read gospel and try to put it in relationship to my life, almost as an exercise in understanding. That’s what it is to me. The literal interpretation of the word of God is something I am not big on. But using the stories as a way to understand ourselves better, and our communities better, is incredibly useful to me. One of the things that engaged me with St James’ was I was watching my community become filled with unhoused people, which is a growing problem all over LA, and they were doing something about it. So I wanted to help these people make a change in my immediate neighborhood. And another thing is, it is wonderful to sit in a space and just listen. We don’t do that very often.”
Luke’s other refuge is his home woodshop, a hobby he has embraced for 15 years. “It’s the antithesis of being an actor,” he says. “The first thing people say when they come into my shop is, ‘It smells like my grandfather.’ They associate that smell with that generation. And I love that experience of cutting open different types of wood and smelling how they’re different, and associating that with a memory or project. So come Christmas time, I love working with cedar. And I keep joking with Billy that I’m going to take my ‘Bros’ money and buy a new table saw.” So what is Billy getting for Christmas then? A new shelf for his incoming awards? “I love making things for people, but I haven’t made anything for Billy yet, and I’m kind of stressed about it. Billy’s tough. Maybe I’ll make him a wooden box of chocolates.”
My turn for a little vulnerability now. I was initially not sure I was the best-qualified person to interview a gay man about what could be the biggest gay movie in history. But in retrospect, it worked out pretty well, because this story about love and masculinity is for me, and for everyone (well, almost everyone — the foursomes!). When Bobby is asked by the big-shot movie producer at the beginning of ‘Bros’ to write a gay rom-com that appeals to heterosexual men, he replies, “Something a straight guy might like? Like what exactly? Am I going to be in the middle of a high-speed chase, then all of a sudden fall in love with Ice Cube?” As fun as that sounds, ‘Bros’ is so much more appealing than that.
‘Bros’ is in theaters now
Grooming by Adam Breuchaud at Forward Artists