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‘Fire Island’ Offers a New Take on a Classic Rom-Com Formula


Published June 8, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

A group of gay friends celebrates summer the old-fashioned way — by partying hearty on Fire Island — in Ahn's Austen update. - COURTESY OF HULU
  • Courtesy Of Hulu
  • A group of gay friends celebrates summer the old-fashioned way — by partying hearty on Fire Island — in Ahn's Austen update.

As the weather warms up, our thoughts slide toward summer fun: boat rides, sunsets on the beach, tropical cocktails ... underwear parties? OK, so maybe not everyone's ideal vacation includes a half-naked, drug-fueled dance-athon. But for the characters in Fire Island, a group of twentysomething gay friends who work unglamorous jobs in New York City, their annual pilgrimage to the titular resort is a chance to let loose and feel free for a week. As the New York Times recently put it, this rom-com directed by Andrew Ahn is a "worthy new entry" in the genre of escapist vacation movies — and it features a diverse ensemble cast with serious comic chops.

The deal

Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the film) has a taste for good literature and a distaste for monogamy. When he and four longtime friends set sail for Fire Island, he's looking for fun, not a boyfriend. Before chasing his own bliss, however, he's determined to help his nerdy friend Howie (Bowen Yang) get laid.

When Howie hits it off with a handsome pediatrician named Charlie (James Scully), Noah is overjoyed. The problem is, Howie and Charlie are as slow to act on their feelings as blushing high schoolers. Meanwhile, Charlie's preppy friends seem eager to cut short the budding relationship — particularly the glowering lawyer Will (Conrad Ricamora). When Noah overhears Will calling him "not hot enough to be that annoying," he swears to get the better of his proud antagonist. But is he, perhaps, being a bit prejudiced?

Will you like it?

As you can tell from the above summary, Fire Island is yet another creative modern take on Pride and Prejudice. The movie opens by giving us a knowing wink, as Noah picks up Jane Austen's novel and dismisses its famous first sentence as "some heteronormative bullshit." Yet, for all its old-fashioned values, the book appears to set an irresistible template for romantic comedies.

It's fascinating to watch how Booster adapts the classic plot to fit a milieu of drag shows, karaoke nights and orgies. Austen's emphasis on female chastity has no place in this story; its only notable female character is Erin (Margaret Cho), a delightfully world-weary lesbian who hosts the crew at her house and serves as their maternal, slightly loopy Mrs. Bennet figure.

Yet sexual etiquette remains a fraught issue, as it's bound to be in any era. Here, the unpardonable sin of the rakish Wickham character (Zane Phillips) involves consent and the use of a phone camera. As for Austen's intense class consciousness, it feels all too appropriate in a modern setting, reinforced here by the casual racism of some of the more affluent characters.

Fire Island doesn't have the sumptuous visuals of period Austen adaptations, or much visual texture at all. But Booster's witty dialogue flies fast and furious, sometimes accompanied by a harpsichord or string quartet on the soundtrack to remind us of the source material. Rife with references to books and other movies — Noah and Will bond over a mutual love of author Alice Munro — the screenplay gives us a vivid sense of the self-conscious cultural moment these characters inhabit.

Our sense of what Noah wants from his vacation never entirely coheres, though. His backstory with Howie remains blurry, so it's not clear why he invests so much energy in "fixing" his friend. Noah is certainly attracted to Will and vice versa, but neither ever makes the standard rom-com turn toward affirming monogamy, nor do they explode right out of the Austen framework and have mind-bending, no-strings sex. While their chemistry is there, it never feels entirely realized on-screen.

Most of Austen's heroines fixate on marriage to men of means because it's the only way they can have a measure of autonomy. When you take away that clear-cut motivation, what's left? While social inequities persist in the world of Fire Island, Booster stops short of suggesting that marrying a member of the 1 percent — even a smoldering-hot, smart, sensitive one — could ever be a solution.

Maybe the compromises that Austen's characters made just aren't feasible anymore. Without a substitute goal, Fire Island sometimes feels lacking in clear stakes.

Still, the movie's unabashed emphasis on queer people enjoying themselves — without apologies — is a perfect fit for Pride Month. Just like a good vacation, Fire Island offers a wealth of incidental pleasures on the way to its inevitable conclusion.

If you like this, try...

"Heartstopper" (eight episodes, 2022; Netflix): While Fire Island is proudly R-rated, this adaptation of Alice Oseman's webcomic about high schoolers offers a more PG-13 gay romance.

"Our Flag Means Death" (10 episodes, 2022; HBO Max): Or, if you prefer to see LGBTQ representation in a comic vein with an emphasis on mocking the patriarchy, set sail with this instant cult hit about a none-too-deadly crew of 18th-century pirates.

"Tales of the City" (10 episodes; 2019; Netflix, Pluto TV): Long before Fire Island, Armistead Maupin chronicled the lives and loves of an earlier generation of gay men in a newspaper serial (later novelized) that started funny and turned deadly serious as AIDS entered the scene. It was adapted for TV in the 1990s, and this recent sequel brings the characters into the 21st century.