Classic romantic comedies are tricky — not every movie can have the fizz of “The Philadelphia Story” or the quotable longevity of “You’ve Got Mail.” “Bros” references the latter as a kind of ideal, using the formula of good-hearted-and-lonely opposites seeking soul mates in unlikely places, and applying it to two sexually active gay men in the age of Grindr. Co-written by and starring Billy Eichner (”Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street”) and directed by Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), the movie aspires to be the first gay rom-com to crack that pantheon, proving to be funny, sharp, sexy, and occasionally explicit.
Playing the Billy Crystal nebbish is Eichner as Bobby Leiber, a fast-talking, neurotic podcaster with a hairy concave chest and skinny legs in his element on Manhattan’s accepting streets. Give us your tired, your poor, your gay men yearning to be free and, yet, coupled. This setting — and a character not so far from the actor himself — allows Eichner plenty of room to practice his observational humor. He has a droll take on New York gay life: the clubs, the brunches, the best friends, the hook-ups, and his apologies for being a cis white gay male in a rainbow community trying to create Manhattan’s first LGBTQ+ museum.
The rapid-fire gags about Bobby’s single life are run-on funny and frequently slapstick. When an anonymous Internet date requests a certain kind of pic that rhymes with flick, he modestly declines full frontal. However, he acquiesces to sending a picture of his butt. We watch him struggle to get an angle in the bathroom mirror, futzing with ring lighting, and injuring himself while shaving his derriere. He’s less Cary Grant, more Jack Lemmon.
Surrounded by caring friends and work colleagues, Leiber’s not short on companionship, or even sex. But this 40-year-old who claims to never have had a significant romantic relationship grouses about that one thing that’s missing from his otherwise overstuffed life: intimacy.
True to format, we dance our way to a meet cute. While sipping his drink and kvetching to a friend at a raging night club filled with sweaty shirtless bodies, Leiber meets an Adonis with a name fit for an astronaut, Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane). Despite how hot Shepard looks sweaty and shirtless, taking a break from dirty dancing with a couple he’s seeing, Leiber can’t admit his attraction. He’s as tongue-tied as a geeky teen at prom. So caught up in his worries that he’s not attractive enough for this hunka hunka, he fumbles — but not before he discovers Shepard may have a head on top of those beautiful shoulders.
The ruggedly handsome Macfarlane will be familiar to avid watchers of “Brothers & Sisters,” where he played Scott “Scotty” Wandell, the husband of Matthew Rhys’s Kevin Walker. The Juilliard alum, who came out publicly as gay in 2008, has played his share of Hallmark romantic leads in TV movies like “A Valentine’s Match” and “Chateau Christmas” and “Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen.” He’s now ideally cast as the manly man of few words and twinkly eyes who unhappily works as an estate lawyer while dreaming of opening his own chocolaterie. He’s the Xanax to Leiber’s Adderall.
Of course, we have to overcome many obstacles before these two potential soul mates find their way to an acknowledgement of mutual attraction and affection — despite Leiber’s insecurity about his looks and Shepard’s reticence to commit to one man.
It’s a delight to see the pair’s love blossom on a weekend getaway in Provincetown. After renting a room from innkeeper Louis (Harvey Fierstein) who offers to join them in bed as an extra amenity, they hold hands, buy saltwater taffy, and drink beers on the beach at sunset. It’s a chance to envision what their relationship could look like in a culture where they can embrace in public and be embraced back. Cue the montage.
The comedy is largely episodic and breezy, bolstered by strong support from Debra Messing, Amanda Bearse, Bowen Yang, Jim Rash, Kenan Thompson, Amy Schumer, and Kristin Chenoweth. The movie’s tone falters when it turns pointed and preachy, as Leiber is when he meets Shepard’s parents for the first time and lectures his date’s mom, a second-grade teacher, about addressing gay history in her curriculum.
But the film is not exactly meant to be an educational tool, either: Its sexual explicitness pushes the boundary of its R rating. Overall, the romantic comedy form has evolved since Meg Ryan’s famous faked orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally,” and the adventurous “Bros” hits the mark in what may be far from the first gay rom-com — last summer’s “Fire Island” and 1995′s “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love” are two that come to mind — but certainly won’t be the last.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller. Written by Stoller and Billy Eichner. Starring Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Debra Messing, Harvey Fierstein, Amanda Bearse, Bowen Yang, Jim Rash, Kenan Thompson, Amy Schumer, Kristin Chenoweth. 115 minutes. Boston theaters, suburbs. R (explicit sex scenes, profanity, drug use)