Whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that Fire Island won’t earn some crossover appeal with straight audiences – hell, I even saw this movie with a straight guy – queer audiences are sure to wholeheartedly embrace Joel Kim Booster‘s deliciously funny, at times savage comedy in a manner that’s entirely personal and significantly unique compared to general audiences.
Of course, next to this being a film that will find its mass appeal with queer audiences, it’s written, directed, produced and fronted by men of Asian descent, a demographic so often undervalued and underrepresented in queer media. Now, I’m really not trying to take this to an overtly serious place when the film at hand is such a well-constructed comedy, but it can’t be denied how important Fire Island is to so many community members – even if linked to a film that feels as if it could be so fluffy and lightly digestible.
In a glorious take on Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice, Fire Island sets itself at the titular location for a week of intended debauchery for Noah (Booster) and his besties-cum-chosen family, Howie (Bowen Yang), Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomás Matos), and Max (Torian Miller). Fire Island, an impossibly gay village off the South Shore of Long Island, has long been claimed as the go-to spot for queer vacationing by the wealthy, enviably sculpted, and very, very white subsect of gay men. Safe to say, Noah and co. don’t entirely fit the brief; although, Booster, Rogers, and Matos are all deducted a point for being suitably in shape for considered “outsiders”.
Rom-com chaos ultimately ensues as Noah (our Elizabeth Bennett, for those noting) intends to play matchmaker for Howie (our Jane), or, at least, match his privates to another island-hopper, hoping that his continually self-doubting bestie will realise he’s far more of a catch than he gives himself credit for. It’s here in Booster’s commentary on image and status that the film gets alarmingly deep, making subtle nods on the very real issue of body dysmorphia within the community, as well as quite head-on tackling the impossibly cruel “catchphrase” of “No fats, no fems, no Asians” that so many gay “dating” apps advertise. Such a horrid logline is one that affects the main quintet in some manner – Noah and Howie are Asian, Keegan and Luke air on the femme side, and Max is larger bodied (and black, too) – and though Booster’s script acknowledges its hurtful connotations, it is never viscerally explored for the sake of keeping the film comedic. Whilst it could have been to the film’s benefit to further comment on such, the mere fact it’s mentioned so openly is enough of a win.
Amongst queer community politics and nightclub orgies (yes, the film, whilst not overly graphic, doesn’t shy away from presenting its promiscuous sexual activity with a certain glee), there’s a series of duelling romances to be had. Howie, seemingly not used to any type of genuine attention from men of an aesthetically pleasing nature, is instantly smitten with a doe-eyed doctor, Charlie (James Scully), whilst Noah increasingly fights off his disgust-disguised-attraction towards Will (Conrad Ricamora), his very own Mr. Darcy, Charlie’s friend and apparent fun police who, initially, brushes Noah and his friends off as the trashy island types who tend to frequent every possible party going; to Will’s credit, they do indeed attend all the parties and act in a less-than-savoury manner, but that’s not for Will to presume before witnessing it himself.
Even if this wasn’t based on such a known piece of literature as Pride & Prejudice, Fire Island‘s romantic comedy inclinations would easily lead us to see just where the narrative was going, but it’s because it’s framing itself around Austen’s tale that we are even more readily forgivable of its genre conventions; in any other situation I might roll my eyes at a rain-drenched argument scene, here, I welcome Noah and Will airing some of their grievances in such downpour.
Though its eventual culmination is entirely unsurprising, the journey getting there is so gorgeously funny and personally poignant that you ultimately don’t mind. It certainly is of immense benefit that the entire ensemble lean into their characters with a wild abandon, with Booster, Yang and Ricamora centring the film with a more relatable, grounded approach in their performances, whilst Rogers and, particularly, Matos lace the film with a flamboyance that lends the setting a healthy balance; these opposing tones coming together in a stand-out moment involving the game “Heads Up”, where Will’s inability to guess the actress Marisa Tomei from Keegan and Luke’s clues results in a slew of on-the-nose retorts that I dare say every queer man has uttered a variation of when such iconic actresses aren’t recognised.
Then there’s Margaret Cho as this film’s Mrs. Bennett, the boys’ “den mother”, Erin; “Career brunch server, age unknown, lesbian scam queen”, as she’s so affectionately described. Erin, who has a tattoo above her nether regions reading “All you can eat salad” and ate a piece of glass some 5-years prior at a top Italian food chain, resulting in a hefty settlement that funded her Fire Island getaway, is essentially the catalyst for the film’s proceedings, and though this is absolutely Booster and Yang’s film, she brings enough lesbian-powered bravado to the table that she completely devours every scene she’s in, owning even the smallest of throwaway lines or background moments.
As over-the-top Fire Island may be perceived by general audiences – and I truly hope this being a “gay movie” doesn’t put people off watching as it’s so bitingly written and warmly romantic, more so than a lot of the other genre mush lapped up because, you know, straight leading stars – it feels quite inherently real to the community it’s evidently made for. So often confined to being a stereotype, Booster and director Andrew Ahn have embraced all facets of what makes queer people so fabulously entertaining (yes, perhaps some of the stereotypes are true) and complicatedly deep with a respectful and, importantly, funny effort that only really begs one further question: Joel, can you tackle Sense and Sensibility next?
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Fire Island is streaming on Disney+ under the Star Banner from June 17th, 2022