It’s a gross oversimplification of Jane Austen’s gift to suggest that her novels reduce to heteronormative matchmaking exercises, though all six end with their heroines getting hitched. (Austen herself never wed. Make of that what you will.) Gay movies have their formulas, too, few of which end in marriage. Exasperatingly, the vast majority center on one of three plots: the coming-out story, the in-love-with-my-straight-buddy dead-end romance and the coping-with-AIDS downer. So right off the bat, there’s something fresh about “Fire Island,” a saucy queer ensemble comedy from comedian-cum-screenwriter Joel Kim Booster about looking for Mr. Right in the spot where gay men flee to find no-strings fun, sun and sex.
Taking a page from “Clueless,” Booster had the bright idea to update a key Austen classic, putting the gay Asian pride in “Pride and Prejudice” — where nothing of the sort ever existed before — with the help of “Spa Night” director Andrew Ahn. By setting his unapologetically queer take on the eponymous gay enclave, he gives audiences who’ve never been there a taste of a place where LGBT folks aren’t at the mercy of the majority; they are the majority. As for those who have experience with Fire Island, well, Booster serves up a fantasy version of a week’s vacation in paradise, casting Margaret Cho as house mother.
Centered on the friendship between Noah (Booster) and bestie Howie (“Saturday Night Live” breakout Bowen Yang), the film’s novelty is further reinforced by the diverse cast and the sight of Searchlight Pictures’ logo (the project was originally intended as a series for Quibi, which Searchlight refashioned into a feature when the short-form streamer went under, debuting the film on Hulu). The laughs start right out of the gate, as an off-key gay men’s chorus performs the studio’s fanfare. Doubling as narrator, Booster immediately challenges Austen’s infamous opener, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” kicking last night’s fling out of bed and rushing to meet his friends (Matt Rogers, Tomás Matos, Torian Miller and Yang) at the ferry.
Booster plays a hunky heartbreaker whose way of dealing with New York’s daunting dating scene is to move fast and then move on: Score before the dude in question gives him reason to reconsider the conquest — like turning out to be a Republican, or failing to catch a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” reference. Not all gay men are wired that way, as Yang’s more romantically inclined (and less abdominally defined) character woefully reminds him. Howie’s the old-fashioned sort, brainwashed by Hollywood movies, and more apt to fall in love than to fall in bed with a handsome stranger.
Perpetually horny (but secretly insecure) Noah promises to put his libido on hold until Howie gets laid, which he figures is all but guaranteed to happen in a hook-up haven like Fire Island. And just like that, at the first bar they visit, Howie spots a cute, slightly dopey doctor, Charlie (James Scully), and already, before even talking to him, he seems to be planning their 10-year anniversary. If audiences don’t love Howie yet, Yang cinches it with his body language in this scene, projecting the character’s insecurity with nervous gestures and an Emma Stone scowl.
Noah’s happy for his friend, but wants them to hook up already. That’s what Fire Island is for, he figures, and his own self-imposed abstinence is making things complicated. Already, Noah’s been cruised at the convenience store by a gorgeous ginger named Dex (Zane Phillips in the Wickham role), and the tension is heating up with Charlie’s cold-shoulder wingman Will (Conrad Ricamora as the movie’s Mr. Darcy equivalent).
Such up-front attention on sex may be enticing for those who wish LGBT movies weren’t so coy on the subject — compared with straight-guy equivalents like “Porky’s” and “American Pie,” at least — though it was a little much for little old me, who identifies with Will’s relatively condescending character. “This place is like a playground for superficial vapid people,” he quips at one point, whereas Noah’s posse says things like, “Can I trade someone a Crest white strip for a PrEP pill?” Witnessing blowjobs in back rooms is not quite what one expects from a film that name-drops Austen, Alice Munro and other literary inspirations, although even that scene serves a narrative purpose, as Noah is on his knees when Will spots him in flagrante delicto from across the room. But it also features dance contests, karaoke numbers and a sunset to remember.
The movie’s strength comes in acknowledging that there’s room for all kinds of people on Fire Island. There are plenty of gay folks who aren’t comfortable at gay clubs, and to them, I always say: “You assume that everyone goes out looking for the same thing, but if you’re here and you don’t relate, there are sure to be others who feel the way you do.” But you can’t force them to have fun, the way Noah wants to do with Howie. Yang may be the MVP in this ensemble, though the cast is terrific across the board. Cho’s as irreverent as you want her to be, while doubling as the glue that holds the group together (there’s an odd subplot about her character having to sell the house, which complicates potential sequel plans).
We want to see this group reunite. But do we really want to see them all paired up at the end? Booster handles that well, giving audiences the rom-com finale they crave while leaving things open, literally, between the couples. And they were all sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing them into Fire Island, had been the means of uniting them.
Searchlight Pictures will stream “Fire Island” exclusively on Hulu in the U.S. on June 3, releasing the film internationally on Disney+ as a Star Original.