Buddy Films, Male Vulnerability, and the Search for Meaningful Bromances

In the canon of truly great buddy films, Twins doesn’t get the praise it deserves. On mere premise alone — Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are fraternal brothers (!), the result of early genetic experiments — the film is a bona fide classic. But compared to flicks like 48 Hours, Tango & Cash, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Bad Boys, and Blues Brothers, the 1988 comedy often comes up short (a DeVito zinger!)

Those other flicks exemplify, as the Los Angeles Times explained way back in 2001, the “escapist fantasy” the buddy genre provides, a niche in popular culture where “men can openly express their feelings for each other, even though men on screen today seem less comfortable with each other than ever before.” That’s why buddy films are so profoundly popular —they’re a chance to explore male-to-male connections and what those bonds say about race, sexuality, class, and a myriad of other important life issues.

But Twins isn’t your traditional buddy film, and its inherent value is found in what new contextual value it provides for this long-running cinematic trope. Twins is the most glaring example of a subset of buddy films, ones that subvert the tradition dynamic to highlight and explore something much more organic and relatable among men. Plus, there’s this scene because, well, 1988.

Whether it’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence playing cowboys and robbers in modern Miami, or Elwood and Jake Blues simply running amok, most buddy films share a few essential threads. Namely, that there has to be a meeting of two dichotomous men: The slovenly Oscar and the uptight Felix in The Odd Couple, or the spoiled, disconnected Jimmy Dix and the hard-up, tough-as nails Joe Hallenbeck from The Last Boy Scout. Luckily, it takes just two hours for these polar opposites to learn from one another, find a sense of emotional symmetry, and ride off into the sunset together as best buds/partners. Yet even with all the awesome shootouts and car chases involved, buddy films can feel like a most poisonous reduction of male relations. A simplification and demystification of the powerful interactions between two dudes. (OK, sometimes it’s boob jokes, but we’re not without the capability of depth.)

Oftentimes these films strip men of any real emotional power. As professor Sergio Rigoletto explains in his book Italy on Screen, “statements of emotional proximity are… always quite oblique… in doing so they comply with the dominant social conventions according to which the love between two men cannot be clearly spoken in films.” If they’re not muting emotions, then these same films are muting women. As the L.A Times piece added, “Buddy pictures have always been a man’s world… freed from confronting the sticky complexity of sex, men are allowed to debate the important things in life, like the easiest way to rob a bank.” Or, as Robert Kolker writes in his book A Cinema of Loneliness, “The buddy film is a fantasy of men with and at the same time without women.” This treatment of women isn’t just unsettling, but seems to be shorthand for a metaphorical disconnect with emotions or vulnerability entirely. A total denial of anything beyond surface level stuff as to avoid any sense of weakness or openness. Buddy films are also very much an American phenomenon, likely an extension of our own views on verbose masculinity, and which has reached toxic levels as of late.

All this needless distillation that occurs in buddy films, often in the pursuit of narrative success, happens because creators perpetuate the same arc and character interactions. A running montage of (cool!) gunfights, men rallying against each other and women and their very internal feelings, and an unceasing loyalty to thick-headed-ness. A steady stream of conflict, forced interaction, and eventual success that plays out with varying degrees of comedic punch and brooding intensity. (Comedies especially love the basic buddy flick equation: Running Scared, Midnight Run, and The Hard Way.) By their very nature, buddy films perpetuate certain ideas and deny the existence of others, narrowing the scope of what men can think and feel about themselves and the world. Limiting the healthy exchanges of ideas and feelings as to satisfy baser urges and keep characters in predictable circumstances. It’s no wonder violence is an integral part of these films —I’d be angry too if I was pigeonholed into such a singular worldview.

Fellas, consider for a moment your own friendships. You may have noted a disconnect or power imbalance within these essential bonds. In some cases, that creates a sense of dominant friend versus submissive friend, or two people not entirely focused on the emotional aspects of the relationship. I wouldn’t reach as profoundly regressive and utterly depressing conclusions as these red pill dweebs in diving deeper into male dynamics, but it’s clear there exists a well of just such feelings. Men keenly aware of the chasm that can exist between them, and an uncertainty of how (or if) to repair it. In my own experiences, I’ve drifted between positions depending on the individual friendship, sometimes being the one that dictates the course of actions or instead has to rely on the other person for more emotional support. The latter’s not an easy concession to make, and as a result, I’ve found it difficult to make male friends (as have millions of other dudes starting in their mid-20s).

If that weren’t enough, many dude-based friendships seemingly enact a running “guy code”, asinine rules about how to hang out or dealing with significant others. (Most rulings tend to err on the side of brovaries before ovaries.) Violating these guidelines somehow brings into question one’s manhood, which has always struck me as both deeply painful and counterproductive. That’s not to say the resulting friendships still can’t be successful — just that there are certain obstacles impacting male friendships. As psychologist Len D. McCoy explained in his 1998 thesis, men face a few key barriers in their non-sexual friendships, usually problems based on the ideas of “fear and competition,” both of which are rooted deep in the male psyche, vestigial structures from our early relationships with dear ol’ dad.

Aside from McCoy’s intriguing paper, there’s quite a bit of available research highlighting what makes male friendships unique and, in many cases, not nearly as effective as other pairings (i.e. those often involving women).

Papa Coplan.

A 1997 study in “Psychology of Women Quarterly” looked at the balance of power within same-sex friendships. While “gender differences were relatively small in magnitude and were not found for all indices of relationship quality,” the researchers echoed past papers by declaring that “women generally evaluated their same-sex friendships more positively than did men.” One such earlier study, released in 1988, looked at gender differences in friendships among New Zealanders. As that team noted, “New Zealand men preferred numerous but less intimate same-sex friends, while women (as in the United States) showed a preference for a few, close, intimate same-sex friends. Men, in contrast to women, derived emotional support and therapeutic value more from their opposite-sex relationships than their same-sex friendships.”

In a 2016 piece for The New York Times, psychiatrist Dr. Jacqueline Olds echoed McCoy by noting that this disconnect begins in childhood. “…Men’s friendships are more often based on mutual activities like sports and work rather than what’s happening to them psychologically,” she said. “Women are taught to draw one another out; men are not.” That certainly encapsulates many male friendships — one-sided affairs based around a love of music or an affinity for fart jokes. Where men stay friends for years and very often don’t move beyond this surface level subject matter. Not that a lack of depth is bad, or doesn’t have some inherent value. But buddy films perpetuate this notion that, somehow, these one-sided, power-obsessive friendships that only further the aforementioned personal shortcomings are actually rock-solid. As if there’s just one way to be friends, and any variation is an affront to the glory of male ego requiring the willful ignorance of healthy emotional expression.

Which is why I think Twins is so very important. Sure, it perpetuates the same narrative device of two very different men slamming their lives together until they’re left with something resembling a functional relationship. However, there’s something more going on under that basic course of action. In the film’s version of genetic science, Arnie’s a man mountain because he got all the good traits (strength, speed, intellect, a sick Austrian accent) while DeVito is left with the DNA garbage (meager stature, male-pattern baldness, questionable morals). Thus, a Schwarzenegger-sized gap exists between the pair, a chasm of physical and emotional qualities that feels wholly organic if only for what it provides in terms of nougaty subtext.

By providing audiences with these two vastly different, wholly unequal characters, Twins reflects back on to us the crux of many genuinely successful male friendships: that profound sense of imbalance and detachment, and the vulnerability and nuance that accompanies, and how that’s all geneally a good thing. Two alpha males may blow up half the city and still save the day, but the titular twins accomplish much of the same without all the gusto and robust testosterone. The pair spend the bulk of the film in disbelief of one another, feverishly propping up their personal worldviews against one another the moment their lives or ideas of themselves are questioned. It’s the stage — one encountered and sometimes clung to perpetually by real friendships — that echoes the sentiments of Olds and McCoy: We’re programmed as wee little boys to forego openness and relatability for bonds of shallow symmetry. To rely on instinct when faced with anything that second guesses our inherent macho state.

But by the end, the duo’s found something resembling harmony. The normally uptight, naive Julius (Schwarzenegger) bends his rigid moral code, allowing Vincent (DeVito) to skim a little money (the rest was returned as per the good guy moral code) to afford the brothers a chance at opening a consulting firm. Meanwhile, the meager Vincent is the one that gets to exert a little force and save the day, putting himself on par with his Zeus-like brother by bashing the big baddie. This whole path shows what the most endearing male friendships must go: Both men face who they are and what they’ve been given in life, and how that makes their movements and decisions better or worse. It’s the ultimate airing of feelings and insecurities, a way to cut through all the history and biology that dominates men and allows them be as imperfect as they were meant to be. In that moment something more emerges, a sentiment beyond the forced friendship perpetuated by buddy films’ more brutish approach: Weakness becomes strength, and everyone leaves with a deeper value of themselves and the world (and money). And y’all thought Arnie’s emotional range consisted solely of Junior.

Twins is just the tip of a greater iceberg of meaningful cinematic friendships between holders of the Y chromosome. Some of these flicks are more successful than others, but each one shows that there is more to dudes bonding over shoot-outs and a pervasive sense of emotional-stuntedness:

Hot Fuzz: Simon Pegg’s Nick Angel teaches lovable goof Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) about how to be a bad-ass super cop. In turn, Butterman, who has a nerdy attachment to action flicks, promotes the value of working together. Teamwork is a pillar in buddy films, but this feels closer to mutual collaboration.

21 Jump Street: In a way, the film mirrors Twins’ spin on male interactions, with Channing Tatum as Arnie and Jonah Hill as DeVito’s stand-in. Only the division is less clear cut, and the two find ways to balance their intellect and popularity to be effective cops (while still making dick and weed jokes).

Sherlock Holmes: To a certain extent, both the volumes of Arthur Conan Doyle stories and the Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law film seires perpetuate the myth of Holmes as demi-god and John Watson as hapless enabler. The BBC series, meanwhile, does its best to balance Holmes’ obsessive genius with the down-to-earth practicality of his BFF (with whom people assume are lovers).

Rush Hour: It’s mostly a dumb movie, but there’s a lot more commonality between Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan then the film would have us believe. They’re both victims of their careers (Tucker has to babysit Chan, who was passed off to the LAPD from the FBI to avoid bad press). But they lean into their work to accomplish goals and find a measure of friendship.

The Nice Guys: Granted, Ryan Gosling doesn’t look like DeVito, but he’s also very much in the same vein: an underwhelming human being who has never seized his true potential. Thankfully he’s got Russell Crowe, who portrays a bruiser with a heart of gold. Together, they solve a great mystery while taking down several important stereotypes of male cop characters.

Lethal Weapon: The ultimate in buddy cop films. A lot of the genre’s most irksome qualities are born here. But we can’t forget that it’s a rather touching film, with Murtaugh finding a way to help Riggs with really heavy emotional issues in a way that felt unassuming. Under all that action and comedy is a story of two guys relating over love and grief.

Foxcatcher: I’ll yield to Todd VanDerWerff’s excellent essay about the film’s gripping portrayal of inequality, which hits on many of the same ideas and sentiments I’ve discussed above.

Men In Black: This is another film that, like Lethal Weapon, gets most of its attention for being funny and containing ample explosions. But at the end, it’s as much a great metaphor on male aging, with Agent K passing on his wisdom while Agent J provides his partner with the assurance needed to move on and put down his (futuristic laser) gun at last.

Culture can’t ever truly force anyone’s hand. If it did, Crystal Pepsi wouldn’t have been such an unmitigated disaster. That doesn’t mean, however, that certain pieces of art still don’t enforce certain beliefs. That’s especially true for men: Be it wrestling, violent video games, or pornography, a lot of men use these artifacts (for better or much, much worse) to guide themselves through the world and to find ways to cope or relate. There’s some science to back all this up: Namely, studies that show how peer pressure influences, among other things, a man’s attitudes on sexuality and even smoking habits. Men are surely open and sensitive enough to let things dictate how we feel about ourselves, girls, family, and even one another, and all of this is definitely enhanced by buddy flicks. They’ve acted like a kind of echo chamber, showing men that regressive, unfulfilled relationships with other guys aren’t just OK, but a means of success in life, love, and one’s career.

Without giving Chris Tucker or Arnold Schwarzenegger too much credit, there’s evidence of the sizable impact of these more progressive films in modern society. Namely, the rise of the bromance over the last several years. This phenomenon finds men willfully and without fear not only embracing their friendships, but doing so with an enthusiasm normally reserved for romantic relationships. To look at your friends/bros/buds and find someone to share one’s feelings and rely upon beyond eating chicken wings and playing Army of Two together (Love ya, Brett Taylor).

Obviously all the bromances in the world can’t fix, say, male attitudes toward feminism or sexual assault. However, there’s something that happens when we start to align fiction and reality. We don’t just create good examples of proper male bonding, but we give room to unheard voices to play a role in how culture informs real-world events. Quiet or otherwise disenfranchised voices, people who can use culture to tell stories and help us better understand and enrich the lives of viewers and subjects themselves.

So long as they’re not remaking Twins with Jason Momoa and Jay Baruchel.

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Writer out of Chicago. Former news editor for Consequence of Sound. Music, sociology, marketing, wrestling, and all things data.

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Christopher Coplan

Christopher Coplan

Writer out of Chicago. Former news editor for Consequence of Sound. Music, sociology, marketing, wrestling, and all things data.

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