Fire Island (dir. Andrew Ahn): Film review

Pack your poppers, lube, and rainbow bikini briefs — director Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island takes us to the gay mecca off the South Shore of Long Island, and it’s an utter joy. As underrepresented groups often see themselves reflected in tragic stories—in this case, there are so many movies about coming out or AIDS, all of which are important—it’s refreshing to see a charming, whip-smart romantic comedy where men can love men. A relaxed, swoon-worthy slice-of-vacation-life, Fire Island is exactly the kind of crowd-pleaser you want to start all over again as soon as it’s over.

Fire Island begins with a quote by Jane Austen, and the film could have easily been titled “Gay Pride and Prejudice.” Joel Kim Booster (who wrote the script) narrates and stars as Noah, a sarcastic Bushwick nurse (and Austenite) who’s always been more about hookups than long-term relationships. As a sacred tradition, he’s about to catch the ferry and spend a week on Fire Island with his close-knit friend group. His “chosen family includes San Francisco bestie Howie (Bowen Yang); uninhibited theater queens Luke (Matt Rogers) and Keegan (Tomás Matos); and the slightly uptight Max (Torian Miller). They’ve all known each other for a decade since they were “broke queers,” and they hope to make it another memorable summer at a beach house, owned by lesbian friend Erin (Margaret Cho, who’s very funny in den-mother mode). Erin then breaks some bad news to her boys: she’s broke and has to sell the house (being an early Quibi investor is a hilariously unexpected reason).

All the more reason to make their last summer really count, Noah vows to find Howie a boyfriend, or at least help him get laid. At a bar, Howie does eye up a cute pediatrician, Charlie (James Scully), who eyes him right back, despite the judgmental looks from Charlie’s snooty relative Cooper (Nick Adams) and rich, emotionally constipated L.A. lawyer friend Will (Conrad Ricamora). After Noah and Howie’s excitable group takes Charlie up on his invitation to a beach house party, it turns out to be full of smug and shallow elite gays with six-pack abs and expensive booze. They feel like the odd gays out, but perhaps Charlie really likes Howie, and maybe Noah’s annoyance with grumpy Will will turn into attraction.

Director Andrew Ahn does bring the same level of dramatic intimacy he brought to his tender, personal feature debut “Spa Night” and the wonderful indie gem “Driveways” when this story calls for it, but Fire Island should attract a much wider audience with its raunchier, romp-like nature (and it will be streamable on Hulu). Joel Kim Booster’s witty script does go the way of a lot of romantic comedies, particularly the one about Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy—and the “Summer That Changed Everything” formula is certainly there—but it feels smarter here. For instance, an obstacle involving a fit and ruggedly handsome content creator named Dex (Zane Phillips) is handled more reasonably than expected. As Dex meets Noah and shows an interest in him, Will immediately lets it be known that he knows Dex and that he’s not a fan. He doesn’t tell Noah why at first, which would seem like a frustrating contrivance to delay the reason, but Will is just being protective and admits it “wasn’t my story to tell.”

As co-leads, Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang are both wonderful as Noah and Howie. They’re quick-witted and instantly likable, and we immediately feel their friendly connection with a cute finger-to-finger shorthand conveying their history together. These are characters we care about. Noah, Howie, Luke, Keegan, Max, and Erin feel like a real close-knit family that supports one another and calls each other a “bitch” as a term of endearment. Even their countdown bit at sundown is hilarious next to Charlie and his humorless group. No one feels like a caricature, a token stereotype, or just a walking, talking Grindr profile; if you’re a gay man, you have either met one of these men, or you will.

In an ensemble where almost everyone gets time to shine, standouts emerge: Tomás Matos is a total find, fiery and hysterically funny as the loud-and-proud Keegan (their shticky impersonation of Marisa Tomei from “My Cousin Vinny” with Matt Rogers’ Luke during Ellen DeGeneres’ phone game Heads Up is spot-on and a total hoot). Playing the tight-assed Mr. Darcy figure, Conrad Ricamora is pitch-perfect. Sharing a bookworm compatibility and a snappy banter with Noah, Will might actually have a heart and contain multitudes after all. Ricamora gets to break down Will’s emotional walls with a very game (and pretty adorable) awkward dance at a drag show, and he and Booster have such a lovely hate-at-first-sight chemistry, not to mention some heat between them that would be hard to fake.

As a mainstream romantic comedy, Fire Island comes the closest to accurately depicting both the inclusivity and the exclusivity of the gay community, while (as corny as it sounds) celebrating love. While it could help rake in more tourism for the flatteringly dreamy way the titular paradise is photographed, the film does have a love-hate relationship with the gay Disney World itself. It’s a place that allows everyone to be safe and open, but it can also be a place of toxic body standards, cattiness, and prejudices within the LGBTQ community concerning race and class. Could there be a more perfectly delivered throwaway line that encapsulates a level of vanity than, “Can I trade someone a Crest white strip for a PrEP pill?”

Besides getting the culture right (the uninitiated may have to Google “meat rack”), the film knows when to throw in a casual “Clueless” reference or shout-outs to “Neighbors 2” and “Call Me By Your Name.” For good measure, there’s an a cappella karaoke number of Britney Spears’ “Sometimes” (which does get a remix from Muna for the climax), and we do get treated to an early taste of that singing trio’s talents with the studio opening’s “Fox Fanfare.” This also has one of the best fourth-wall-breaking jokes while a character is high.

The biggest complaint to have—if it’s even really a complaint at all—is that the film is too short. We hate to see these characters go, wishing we could watch them for a month rather than a week. Alternately sexy and sweet, acerbically funny and poignant, and rather astute, Fire Island is a summer balm.

Searchlight Pictures is releasing Fire Island (105 min.) on Hulu on June 3, 2022.

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