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'Bros' offers lots of laughs — plus a serious commentary on queer identity

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Bros" is a new big-studio rom-com that features a gay couple. Billy Eichner, who co-wrote the script with director Nick Stoller, stars alongside Luke Macfarlane. They lead an entirely LGBTQ principal cast. Stoller's other directing credits include "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Neighbors" and "The Five-Year Engagement." "Bros" opens in theaters this week. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There's a sharp running commentary in "Bros" that pokes fun at how long it's taken Hollywood to cast gay actors as gay characters in nontragic gay stories. The script, co-written by Billy Eichner and the director, Nicholas Stoller, takes swipes at Oscar-winning prestige dramas like "Brokeback Mountain" and "Milk" for casting straight male actors as gay men. But it also mocks more recent trends like the mass production of LGBTQ-themed entertainment by TV and movie studios once they realized there was a huge audience for it. "Bros" knows that queer representation has always been a tricky minefield and that, as a rare gay-themed romantic comedy to be released by a major studio, it has a fair amount to prove.

It was a clever move then to center the movie on an outspoken, pop culture-savvy New Yorker named Bobby, who spends a lot of time thinking about and advocating for queer visibility. Bobby, played by Eichner, has just been appointed to the board of the country's first LGBTQ+ museum, and he's passionate about teaching people queer history that goes beyond AIDS and the Stonewall riots. In this scene, he argues with the other board members about what to put in the final wing of the museum, which has yet to open to the public.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROS")

BILLY EICHNER: (As Bobby) We cannot afford to push our opening again. People will think we're in trouble. Maybe this whole place could fall apart. We need new ideas for what goes in the final wing, and we need them now. Cherry, go.

DOT-MARIE JONES: (As Cherry) You know the blue whale hanging in the Museum of Natural History?

JIM RASH: (As Robert) Yes.

JONES: (As Cherry) What about that - but instead of the blue whale, it's a lesbian?

MISS LAWRENCE: (As Wanda) Oh, no. Uh-uh.

EICHNER: (As Bobby) Yeah. OK, well, yeah, we can't do that.

EVE LINDLEY: (As Tamara) What if the final exhibit was a recreation of a queer wedding?

MISS LAWRENCE: (As Wanda) I like that.

RASH: (As Robert) OK. That, I don't hate.

EICHNER: (As Bobby) Tamara, that is so sweet. I love that. And people can come and register for wedding gifts here.

RASH: (As Robert) Just going to write that...

EICHNER: (As Bobby) Oh, my God, and - no. That is old-fashioned, heteronormative nonsense. We need to get people to rethink history through a queer prism, not comfort them with another gay wedding, all right? It's a museum. It's not "Schitt's Creek."

TS MADISON: (As Angela) Oh, I like "Schitt's Creek."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) But I...

MISS LAWRENCE: (As Wanda) Love "Schitt's Creek."

JONES: (As Cherry) That show has layers.

EICHNER: (As Bobby) All right, everyone loves "Schitt's Creek." Great. OK. Right.

LINDLEY: (As Tamara) That's who you remind me of - Eugene Levy.

CHANG: Bobby's workplace banter is pretty funny. Still, while the supporting cast is both racially and sexually diverse, the characters are sometimes reduced to easy punchlines in a movie that focuses on two gay, white, cis men. The romance begins one night when Bobby goes to a club and meets Aaron, played by Luke Macfarlane. Their first encounter on a neon-lit dance floor doesn't seem too promising. Bobby thinks Aaron, with his easy-on-the-eyes smile and gym-toned physique, is out of his league. Another friend describes Aaron beforehand as very hot and very boring.

And sure enough, Aaron, who likes Garth Brooks and the movie "The Hangover," turns out not to be quite on Bobby's cultural wavelength. But there's a flicker of mutual attraction or at least curiosity there all the same. And as they begin hanging out, "Bros" becomes a smart, nuanced comedy about how opposites can not only attract, but also learn something from each other. Bobby may initially dismiss Aaron's intelligence due to his jockish build and mainstream tastes, but Aaron turns out to be a lot sharper and more emotionally perceptive than he gets credit for.

For his part, Aaron is dissatisfied with his dull job as an estate lawyer, and he admires the creativity and purpose that Bobby brings to his queer advocacy. It makes Aaron feel sheepish about his own out-but-not-always-proud approach to life including his reluctance to talk about his love life with his family. This might sound like serious territory for a movie that mines a lot of laughs from the indignities of Bobby's sex life including a couple of failed Grindr hookups and a few attempts at group sex with Aaron and his friends. There are also a lot of cheeky cameos by LGBTQ fan favorites, including theater legends like Harvey Fierstein and Kristin Chenoweth, plus an extended gag featuring Debra Messing from "Will & Grace."

But as amusing as those scenes are, it's the movie's thoughtfulness about queer identity and activism that stays with you - well, that and the terrific chemistry between the two leads. As Bobby, Eichner taps into the comic belligerence of Craig Middlebrook (ph), his character from "Parks And Recreation," and also gets to show off the singing chops he used as Timon the meerkat in "The Lion King." His intensity finds just the right cushion in Macfarlane's easygoing vibes.

It's easy enough to root for these two characters to wind up together, as you would in any good romantic comedy. But it poses an interesting challenge for "Bros." Bobby rejects the notion that straight and queer relationships are interchangeable. He can't stand the expression, love is love is love, and he doesn't see why he and Aaron should have to conform to heteronormative ideals like monogamy or marriage. That puts the movie in a bit of a bind. Is it pandering to straight sensibilities if it grants Bobby and Aaron their happily ever after? I don't think it is. I also don't think it spoils anything to note that "Bros" means to send you out of the theater in a good mood. And it does.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "Bros."

On Monday's show, a hard look at one of the world's leading management consultants, McKinsey & Company. Though the firm says it's values-driven, investigative reporters Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe find it's made millions from ethically questionable work, helping clients increase profits by harming workers and consumers. Their book is "When McKinsey Comes To Town." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION SONG, "A RECURRING DREAM")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION SONG, "A RECURRING DREAM")

DAVIES: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION SONG, "A RECURRING DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.