The box office that broke Billy Eichner’s back
On Sunday night, Billy Eichner took to Twitter to berate hetero people for not buying tickets to his Judd Apatow-produced queer romantic comedy, which had a disappointing first weekend at the box office. “Everyone who ISN’T a homophobic weirdo should go see BROS tonight!” he wrote. “You will have a blast!”
Last night I snuck in and sat in the back of a sold out theater playing BROS in LA. The audience howled with laughter start to finish, burst into applause at the end, and some were wiping away tears as they walked out. It was truly magical. Really. I am VERY proud of this movie.
— billy eichner (@billyeichner) October 2, 2022
I do not consider myself a homophobic weirdo, maybe a regular weirdo, and I did see Bros, with my hetero wife Regina, on opening night. And while homophobia certainly does exist, maybe there are some other reasons why Bros didn’t succeed. And when I say “didn’t succeed,” let’s be clear. This is a major studio picture, produced by comedy’s leading kingmaker. Judd Apatow made megastars out of Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Amy Schumer, Steve Carell, and many others. Also, the movie has received nearly universal critical acclaim. Rolling Stone has already named it one of the best comedies of the 21st Century. And it did make a few million dollars opening weekend on a relatively small budget, not exactly a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-level bust. So, already, Billy Eichner’s complaints of failure ring a bit thin.
Now, let’s consider the “contemporary audiences are homophobic” claim. Right-wing pundits have been on Eichner since Sunday because, let’s face it, Eichner’s politics make Jane Fonda look like Majorie Taylor Greene. “What about Brokeback Mountain?” the conservatives said. “What about The Birdcage?” These aren’t apt comparisons for Bros. Brokeback Mountain, which Bros makes fun of effectively and relentlessly, is a classic film, but it’s also a tragedy, which Bros definitely is not. The Birdcage is a comedy, and a far more crowd-pleasing one than Bros, but it’s also 25+ years old and owed much of its success to a hammy performance by Robin Williams, who, in 1996, was pretty much the world’s biggest movie star. Saying “contemporary audiences aren’t homophobic because they liked The Birdcage” is equivalent to saying audiences in the 1980s weren’t racist because they saw Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
A more apt comparison, which Eichner endlessly rolls his eyes about in Bros, is Schitt’s Creek, one of the best and most popular sitcoms of all time. While Schitt’s Creek started out as story about rich people forced by circumstance to live in a crappy motel, it gradually morphed into its true form as a gay romantic comedy. David Rose, played by show creator Daniel Levy, was initially a neurotic, sexually-confused mess, forced by economic circumstance to work in a rural Canadian Dress Barn. His relationship with a more conventional man, Patrick, forced him to grow up and learn to be a man, and also to embrace his true queer identity.
Contrast that with Billy Eichner’s Bobby in Bros. When the movie opens, Eichner is one of the world’s most successful podcasters, with so many fans that people actually recognize him on the street. His podcast is so successful that he becomes the executive director of the world’s first LGBTQ+ museum, despite having no experience in the museum industry. He gets laid whenever he wants, with pretty much whoever he wants, has an unlimited number of fabulous friends, and appears to have no money troubles at all. His biggest problem is that the best-looking gay man in New York City is clearly in love with him, but Bobby can’t commit. Also, he needs to raise $5 million for the museum. In Judd Apatow’s universe, five million dollars is nothing, so that resolves fast. By comparison, it takes Schitt’s Creek’s Rose family six years to get back on their feet.
Another good point of comparison is the less-popular but equally relevant HBO Max sitcom The Other Two. Its co-lead, Cary Dubek, is a gay actor in New York who lives far in the shadow of his far more successful family members. He’s not exactly in the closet, but when the show opens, his sex life is so pathetic that he has encounters with his straight roommate, who otherwise refuses to talk to him. Gradually, very gradually, Cary achieves some success in his career and in his personal life, but it’s always precarious and he’s always at risk of stepping on a metaphorical rake. Like David Rose, but unlike Billy Eichner in Bros, he’s an underdog for whom the audience can have a rooting interest.
You could argue, as I have on this site, that Schitt’s Creek is a little “vanilla“, which definitely plays when compared with Bros, which features a lot of semi-hardcore sex scenes. But then again, Schitt’s Creek was a weekly PG-ish show produced for Canadian television, so how much butt play are they really going to show? That said, the final episode, where David and Patrick marry, features an extended sequence where David gets a handjob from a masseur. In response, Patrick says, “did you enjoy yourself?” Queer point made.
The Other Two highlights almost the exact same sequence of jokes as Bros when it comes to gay men and hookup apps, with an equal number of clever pop-culture parodies and premium-cable gay sex scenes, but it doesn’t wrap those parodies in endlessly turgid “woe is me” monologues. Cary even takes a trip to Provincetown with his boyfriend, maybe the same one that Bobby and Aaron visit in Bros. At one point in Bros, the relentless soundtrack stops and we just see Eichner’s face in closeup, backed only by the gentle sound of the Atlantic lapping the shore. He then proceeds to basically say that the world has attempted to thwart him at every turn, even though it’s quite clear that he had unlimited parental support and a good education, and has basically achieved everything he wanted in life.
When Cary Dubek and David Rose complain in their fictional gay lives, everyone around them, even the people that love them, rolls their eyes and says “oh you.” When Billy Eichner complains, and complains, and complains, and then sings a cringey country-themed gay love song at a museum gala, it’s supposed to move us to tears. Schitt’s Creek is a story of gay love and commitment. The leads don’t exactly triumph over homophobia, because everyone accepts them, though you could say that, in itself, is revolutionary. Bros, on the other hand, is a story of two rich guys in New York committing to doing whatever, and basically whoever they want. That may be realistic, but it’s not heartwarming or relatable, things that it clearly strives to be.
If Bros is revolutionary, it’s because of an all-queer cast, with no straight actors other than celebrities who are either playing themselves or holograms of historical figures. The scenes of the board of directors of the museum, as rainbow as rainbow can get, are the funniest and most interesting ones in the movie, something that audiences have actually never seen before. And if those scenes put off mainstream audiences, well, tough.
So to Billy Eichner, who has pledged to hector people on Twitter every day for a year if they don’t see his movie, I’ll say this: Maybe people aren’t buying tickets to Bros because they don’t like stories about gay people. The last time I checked, Modern Family and Queer Eye were pretty widely popular, if also kind of square. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because they don’t all like you.