Fire Island is inspired by Pride and Prejudice, though focus too closely on mapping the details of Austen’s novel onto the film and you’ll notice that, as Noah, star Joel Kim Booster is effectively playing the witty one in his friend group (the Elizabeth) as well as its acknowledged beauty (the Jane). Such are the privileges of having written the script — Booster is also an executive producer — though Fire Island feels hemmed in by its source material even when being loose and irreverent with it. Or maybe it’s the genre itself that’s the constraint. While Fire Island includes all kinds of requisite rom-com elements, from a pratfall meet-cute to a tearful misunderstanding to a grand gesture of a finale, they’re funneled into the experiences of Noah’s bestie, Howie (Bowen Yang), who’s the first to admit his desires run to the basic. Noah, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in marriage, monogamy, or even necessarily the concept of romance itself, and his own entanglement with the standoffish Will (Conrad Ricamora) is sexier and less certain, not so much a coming together as the wrangling of someone skittish who might still turn and run for the hills.
Fire Island is, in other words, a reluctant romantic comedy that’s willing to acknowledge the genre’s shopworn pleasures while only begrudgingly indulging them itself. All of its best parts — and there are plenty — exist outside of that framing, which raises the question of why it’s there at all except as a means of wrestling with its author’s ambivalence about the conventional wisdom that a happy ending is the result of a pairing off. Fire Island, which was directed by Andrew Ahn, arrives on Hulu three months ahead of the theatrical release of Billy Eichner’s Bros, which has been trumpeted as representing all sorts of carefully worded milestones, but neither is anywhere near the first gay romantic comedy to be made. What they share is a skepticism about whether queering the rom-com is really possible or whether the rom-com is fundamentally grounded in, as Noah sniffs in his opening voice-over, “hetero nonsense.” That Fire Island, which takes place during an annual pilgrimage to the historically gay vacation spot off of Long Island, settles on a shrug is made up for by the film’s portrayal of the friendship between two men who feel marginalized even within what’s supposed to be a sanctuary for their community.
Noah, Howie, and the rest of their group — which includes Keegan (Tomás Matos), Luke (Matt Rogers), Max (Torian Miller), and their host, the “lesbian scam queen” Erin (Margaret Cho) — met a decade ago while working the same nightmare bottomless-brunch shift. They’ve since veered off into different professional paths but are mostly able to afford their yearly vacation because Erin bought a house on the island with settlement money from a lawsuit. The film’s stressing of their relative financial straits (“We’re poor — not, like, poor poor, but poor as in none of us have a chance in hell of buying property ever,” Noah explains) is an awkward gesture to the book that almost immediately feels unnecessary. Fire Island doesn’t need to have characters like Cooper (Nick Adams), a nasty pal of Howie’s vague but sweet love interest Charlie (James Scully), sneer at Noah and his friends like the rich-kid villain in an ’80s movie. Noah and his friends are a collection of femme, fat, and non-white people in a scene that prizes none of those things and are already constantly reminded of how unviable they’re seen to be as sexual or romantic partners.
At the center of the friendship between Noah and Howie are their shared experiences of feeling rendered invisible by their Asianness. Howie wants but has never had a boyfriend, while Noah has sex but doesn’t date, having embarked on a campaign of “self-improvement” to mold his body better to current standards of desirability while locking himself off from the idea of being emotionally accessible. In a conversation with Howie, he describes these efforts as having allowed him to take his power back, though underneath this justification simmers a lot of raw hurt and rage. Noah’s is a revenge body directed at the world, while Howie has all but given up. “You’re like an open wound,” Noah tells him, and while the lesson’s clearly supposed to go the other way, with Noah learning to be more open even if it means risking getting bruised, Fire Island isn’t quite ready to commit to that. Or to anything. Noah’s Darcy, Will, is an endearing square who, after a bumpy start, is clearly smitten with Noah — Ricamora’s dorky dancing onstage when Noah volunteers his character to go up during a drag-queen brunch is delightful. And yet when the two have their big scene in the rain, he becomes as much a sounding board for Noah’s frustrations with their community as he is a love interest.
Ahn made his debut with Spa Night, a highly focused 2016 film about a young Korean American man struggling with his sexuality and his relationship with his parents, and then moved on to the somewhat more conventional, but still deeply intimate, Driveways in 2019. Fire Island, with its endless snappy narration and sometimes strained high jinks, represents a change of pace for him, though he wisely downplays some of the more self-consciously commercial aspects of the script, instead leaning into the moments of wordless connection that move Noah’s relationship with Will along. When the two end up dancing at an underwear party, pushed closer and closer by the crowd, the way the club’s lights catch the planes of their bodies is beautiful as unexpected heat sparks between them. It’s a genuine moment of desire in a movie that’s otherwise more intent on talking and joking about the feeling than giving into it. Rather than make a work that ties itself in knots when it comes to the history of its chosen genre, it would have been nice to see something that was freed from those traditions entirely, liberating itself to explore its own pain — as well as its own longing to find something new.
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