Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Film Review: "Fire Island" is the Perfect End to AAPI Heritage Month and a Refreshing Start to Gay Pride

Fire Island (c) Searchlight Pictures, Hulu

Film Review: Fire Island 
Streaming on Hulu

Premise: The first thing you hear at the start of “Fire Island,” an enjoyably fresh gay romcom, is someone’s ringtone: “She’s an icon. She’s a legend.” And the contemporary references don’t stop there, with casual name-drops like OnlyFans, Grindr and TED Talks. But make no mistake, Joel Kim Booster’s script is smack dab in early 19th Century Jane Austen territory, even giving us the first line of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in voiceover before diving into the heart of that novel’s plot and themes. Booster plays Noah, the Lizzie Bennett of his gay group of sisters, and they’re spending their annual summer Fire Island week at the home of Momma Bear Erin (Margaret Cho). Noah’s best friend is Howie (Bowen Yang), a shy, romantic Jane Bennett–type who has never had a serious relationship, and so his flirtation with young, “so adorably clueless” L.A. doctor Charlie (James Scully) is cute, but also sets off the warning bells of Charlie’s rich, obnoxious friends, including lawyer Will (Conrad Ricamora), whom Noah takes an instant disliking to. The fun of the film is to see how Booster twists Austen’s story into this modern gay fable. Noah and Will fight and flirt over Alice Munroe, Alicia Vikander and even have their major confrontation in the rain. There’s even a too-good-to-be-true Mr. Wickham in the person of Dex (Zane Philips). 

Fire Island (c) Searchlight Pictures, Hulu

My Take: Booster’s script is very clever and funny, with bitchy one-liners and cutting asides coming fast and furious, which makes the whole “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation a harder trick to pull off. Thankfully, the film is blessed with the talented and delicate hand of director Andrew Ahn, who made the wonderful “Driveways” a couple of years back. Even with the gay tropes and situations (party drugs, backrooms, meat rack), Ahn’s unfussy direction gives the film a gentle tone that is so unlike most gay films of this ilk. If there is one element that doesn’t transfer well from the Austen original is how uptight Will’s Mr. Darcy is. You can feel Ricamora suppress his natural charm to be this much of a bitter pill (although he does have a funny relationship with ice cream cones). If there was just one scene of Will being a good friend to Charlie as Noah is to Howie, it would have gone a long way for us to care about him. When Will’s facade finally does melt away, he and Noah’s romance finally feels earned. The rest of the cast are fine with their Austen counterparts, with Matt Roger’s flirty Luke being as unbearable as Lydia was in the novel and Torian Miller’s Max more sociable and less of a wet blanket than his Mary Bennett counterpart. Booster’s script also wisely doesn’t overplay the Asian aspect of his story, despite three of the main characters (and the director) being Asian, but when he does reference it, it’s powerful and sharp. While some of the “Pride and Prejudice” elements of the film feels forced in parts (and the reliance on people falling into pools as sort of a cleansing motif is a bit much), I ultimately enjoyed how Booster made it work in the end (romcom tropes and all). Like “Clueless,” which “Fire Island” successfully aspires to be, this film is fun, funny and smart. 

Fire Island (c) Searchlight Pictures, Hulu

VIP: Bowen Yang. Yang has always been a broad comedian in “SNL” and “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens,” so it was refreshing to see Yang try some dramatic material. Booster gives Yang’s Howie a complex relationship with the gay community, as he is Asian without a gym-twink body. Body-shaming, racism and gay nonconformity are issues Yang and Rogers occasionally bring up in their “Las Culturistas” podcast, so to actually have to deal with it in a serious way in the middle of a comedy movie feels very personal for Yang, who handles it with graceful aplomb. Of course, he is also very funny and has a nice moment singing an earnest, unironic rendition of Britney Spears’ “Sometimes.”

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