Fire Island Takes Pride in its Literary Romantic Entanglements
For a brief moment Fire Island had me terrified. After his lovely Spa Night debut and his superb follow-up, Driveways, I was excited to see what director Andrew Ahn had up his sleeve. But the opening few minutes of this romantic comedy — inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — are so frenetically in your face and risibly obnoxious that I was worried the talented filmmaker’s latest wasn’t going to be for me.
Thankfully those feeling quickly vanished. Once the core dynamics of star Joel Kim Booster’s impressively intricate script begin to kick in, things take a positive turn. Ahn’s handling of the material also begins to make more sense, his direction exhibiting a playfully magnetic vibrancy that fits in nicely with the party atmosphere, while also augmenting the close-knit bonds of the group of friends vacationing together for what may be the last time.
For one week each summer, Noah (Booster), Howie (Bowen Yang), Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomás Matos), and Max (Torian Miller) head to Fire Island. They always stay at a house on Tuna Walk owned by the perpetually optimistic Erin (Margaret Cho), the whole crew carousing as if they were a giant happy family who rarely get to spend time in one another’s company.
The main plot points revolve around Noah and Howie. They’re best friends, and while the former is perfectly content to remain single and have affairs with whoever strikes his fancy, the latter is starting to wonder if he’ll ever make a lasting connection with anyone at all. A young doctor named Charlie (James Scully) catches Howie’s eye, and while his handsome wingman Will (Conrad Ricamora) disapproves of this summertime fling, he himself can’t get past a growing attraction to Noah. One thing leads to another, and nothing goes entirely to plan.
Booster isn’t subtle about his scenario’s connection to Austen’s prose. The relationship between Noah and Will is basically a modern-day, gender-flipped take on the familiar interactions between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Their scenes together are well developed and even more impressively acted. Booster and Ricamora have terrific chemistry. This gives their cantankerous back-and-forth arguments an intimate authenticity that helps their growing affection for one another become all the more believable.
But the heart and soul of the film is Noah and Howie’s friendship. Ahn does a fine job of keeping the focus squarely on them. No matter how silly various elements become, even when a few subplots fall flat or aren’t developed well enough to have a major impact on the proceedings, the director knows to keep the two men at the center.
As to those secondary stories, one of the better ones involves an unauthorized sex tape. Noah and Will briefly join forces to make sure the perpetrator is held accountable for their heinous actions. Another involves the always divine Cho: Erin is forced to put her house up for sale, making this maybe the last summer this friend group will be able to afford to vacation on Fire Island together. The veteran actress also has a sensational scene with Booster roughly two-thirds of the way through, during which viewers of all backgrounds owe it to themselves to listen to and learn from the universal truths being uttered.
The rampant silliness can wear a little thin. There’s also a climactic boat chase that treads awfully close to Mamma Mia! territory — and I do not want that to be construed as some sort of compliment. But Booster and Ahn dig deeper than anticipated, and there are so many heartwarming moments that they more than make up for the scenes that fall flat. The laughs have weight, and the tears are genuine.
Fire Island has no business being as good as it is. While I don’t think Austen could have imagined her work being transformed into a Gay-friendly celebration of friendship and family, hopefully she’d applaud the finished product just as heartily as I do.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)