Functional, blessed with a good beat, and ephemeral, Fire Island is the equivalent of a white label remix blasted at a circuit party. Director Andrew Ahn and screenwriter-star Joel Kim Booster may embrace the descriptions. This loose adaptation of Pride and Prejudice rewrites Jane Austen’s beloved novel into a story about a group of gay men who gather at the longtime northeastern summer party capital in search of love in a scene reveling in frivolity; much of its novelty depends on the casting of Asian actors. In Booster it’s got its Elizabeth Bennett (named Noah) and in Conrad Ricamora its Darcy (Will). An audience with a cursory acquaintance of Austen but a thorough knowledge of the three or four dozen anonymous gay-themed offerings on Netflix and Amazon Prime, though, won’t see the fuss. Fire Island embraces the triviality on which it comments.
Noah’s voice-over often comes off like a series of clauses in an indemnity agreement; Ahn can’t afford to piss off younger viewers for whom slurs remain slurs despite reclamation projects. For example: “Please don’t email me” for saying “faggot.” On the island ferry the crew make a display of their differences by acting as swishy as everyone else. The modernized Bennett sisters include Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomás Matos), and Max (Torian Miller), Noah’s white, Latino, and Black friends, respectively. Chief among them is Howie (Bowen Yang), a sad sack in Poppy Bush-era specs who rarely gets laid. Margaret Cho plays den mother Erin, in danger of losing the home she bought with the settlement paid out after a lawsuit over glass in food. We know Erin’s sassy because she greets the crew with “I knew I smelled some bottoms!” Viewers who miss the wit of the American Queer as Folk will giggle. Within minutes of exploring they meet Charlie (James Scully), a decent but lunkheaded sort whose own pals, all white and twinky, are even worse, patronizing Noah’s crew even though Howie and Charlie develop a sincere attraction. Watching them, aloof and hostile, is Will, around whom Noah is suspicious until Will looks impressed at the Alice Munro story collection in Noah’s hands.
This ploy results in a brief disagreement over the meaning of “Powers.” It means nothing. Like Max flaunting a copy of Madeline Albright’s memoir in close-up, Fire Island includes them as tags of knowledge, no different than the quotation marks Ahn and Booster wrap around their received ideas; hell, our tenth grade English teachers warned us about clichés remaining clichés no matter the Christmas lights prettying them up. But calling attention to and poking fun at genre conventions are part of the queer tradition too. I’ve read criticism about Fire Island concerning its fascination with sculpted bodies. This is true. No gay man who’s hit a bar or The Scene generally will not recognize it. Latino and Black viewers will notice the additional pressures to which they’re subjected in spaces where other gay men are objectified enough. By pairing Charlie and Howie, Fire Island confronts the racism that, for example, dating app addicts take for granted. The Black and non-buff Max doesn’t get a date, though — Fire Island will only go so far.
Insisting on its veniality, Ahn’s film is modest and likable. Thank a marketplace that sees dollars in equally inoffensive fare like Young Royals, Heartstopper, and Love, Victor. The maudlin bits, abetted by the likes of Perfume Genius on the soundtrack, pass blessedly fast. What the movie lacks is Austen’s shrewdness: marriage is a contractual agreement. Despite its lip service to the indulgences of lawyers and doctors and graphic designers, Fire Island assumes gay men and women can pay for weeklong vacations off Long Island, and if they’re just getting by, well, they need only look for a sugar daddy — an assumption with resonance, I suppose, during a pandemic and inflationary times. Early in the film Will dismisses it all as a place for “superficial, vapid morons.” He might’ve said a similar thing about Fire Island had he caught it on Hulu one night.