Bowen Yang in ‘Fire Island’: Film Review

The gold standard for contemporary riffs on Jane Austen remains Amy Heckerling’s supremely witty Clueless. But Fire Island, Andrew Ahn’s queer spin on Pride and Prejudice, is a delightful addition that straddles the divide between an early 19th century comedy of manners and a frothy modern-day rom-com with disarming sweetness. While the marketing sells toned bodies, hard partying and nonstop quips to a pulsing dance beat, the actual movie, streaming June 3 on Hulu, brings surprising heart and even sensitivity to its affectionate observation of gay men of color navigating relationships. Or avoiding them. None of that should be unexpected coming from the director of Spa Night and Driveways.

Much of the initial attention will focus on Bowen Yang in a self-deprecating role that makes more consistent use of his talents than Saturday Night Live, where he’s too often let down by patchy material. But the breakout here is screenwriter Joel Kim Booster, a Los Angeles-based stand-up comic with extensive TV credits who has written himself a plum role as Noah, the Lizzie Bennet of the scenario, as well as its narrator.

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Sensible “sister” Jane to Noah’s Lizzie is Howie (Yang), who flies in from San Francisco against his better instincts for the annual weeklong Fire Island reunion with their chosen family; they all met 10 years ago working at the same “cursed brunch spot.”

The group includes thirsty mess Luke (Matt Rogers); his inseparable bestie, gender-fluid queen Keegan (Tomás Matos); and the more grounded, bookish Max (Torian Miller). Their host is lesbian den mother Erin (Margaret Cho), who bought a house in the Pines with a lawsuit settlement after finding glass in her food at a popular Italian chain restaurant. But that was the end of her sound investments; she’s now broke and has to sell the place, so this looks like the group’s last summer together.

While that melancholy reality hangs in the air, the principal plot driver is Noah’s mission to get Howie laid, promising to put his own sexual pursuits on pause until his friend gets lucky.

Both these spiritually bonded men have absorbed the blithely offensive gay hookup-app exclusion of “No fats, no femmes, no Asians,” but each has responded in different ways. Noah has built an armor out of his tight gym body and become a voracious player — but smart, as in he reads Alice Munro. He swats off potential boyfriends and convinces himself that monogamous relationships are of zero interest. Howie has internalized the marginalization, his low self-esteem making him feel invisible. He’s 30 and has never been in a relationship, but he’s actually far less hungry for the horny sex than the swooning rom-com fantasy.

Howie’s insecurities aren’t helped by being in “gay Disney World,” where “hot, white, rich, with 7 percent body fat” is considered the top of the desirability spectrum. Each year he vows not to come back. His culturally diverse, low-income group stands out conspicuously when they drift into the social flow of the well-heeled vanilla gays, whose palatial mansion puts Erin’s cozy house to shame.

The connection by which these seemingly incompatible factions intersect is Charlie (James Scully), an adorably guileless pediatrician on the rebound from a failed relationship. He’s instantly attracted to Howie, who’s too chronically awkward to believe the cute stranger’s interest is genuine, let alone act on it. Then there’s aloof L.A. lawyer Will (Conrad Ricamora), whose dour, taciturn demeanor doesn’t quite hide his attraction to Noah, even if the latter is slow on the uptake.

There’s no doubt as to where all this is headed, especially to anyone familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But Ahn’s light-touch direction, the appealing cast and the frisky humor and stealth soulfulness of Kim Booster’s script keep it breezy and captivating as the predestined romantic partners butt heads or drop in and out of each other’s orbits when faced with various obstacles.

The part of the film where the Jane Austen parallels feel a little strained is in the obnoxious company that Charlie and Will — respectively the Charles Bingley and Mr. Darcy of the makeover — seem content enough to keep. Charlie is painfully nice from the get-go, even if his constant beaming assertions that Howie and his friends are so “funny and different” grow wearisome. Has this guy really never met anyone who wasn’t a narcissistic Speedo model? Likewise, Will, despite his chilly veneer, is inevitably revealed to be decency personified — notably when he steps in to rescue ditzy Luke (read: Lydia) from public shaming at the hands of a sexy party boy of dubious character (Zane Phillips) in one of the cleverer twists on the original novel.

But Charlie and Will’s hosts in the Ocean Walk House are beyond toxic. One of them, Braden (Aiden Wharton), unfailingly greets Noah, Howie and their posse with, “Can I help you?” every time they set foot in the airy Architectural Digest spread, invited or not. And controlling Cooper (Nick Adams) is as openly disdainful as he is manipulative, doing his best to sabotage any possible romance that would keep the interlopers around. He makes the caustic Caroline Bingley seem like an angel.

“Top-shelf stuff hits a little different than well,” says Cooper with snarky superiority when Howie gets trashed at one of their parties and spends the night throwing up in the bath. Cooper even calls in reinforcements by summoning Charlie’s ex, Rhys (Michael Graceffa), another hunky, vapid asshole, to drop in from Manhattan and edge Howie out of the picture.

The notion that neither Charlie nor Will, who’s biracial Asian, would be unduly troubled by the classist, racist meanness of their housemates becomes hard to swallow. But it’s essential to the plot mechanics and makes it all the more gratifying when they finally do come to their senses and shrug off the disapproval of Cooper and company.

Ultimately, it also works because the screenplay is sufficiently rooted in personal experience to touch on the openly discriminatory way in which a lot of white power gays dismiss “otherness” of any kind. There are also amusing digs at the opposite extreme, the fetishization of Asian men by white serial “rice queens.” It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that those elements are smoothly woven into the mix, never preachy.

The script is loaded with fun references to queer movie favorites, whether it’s a dance remix of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; a celebrity name game challenge, with My Cousin Vinny providing the key clue; a shout-out to the merits of Neighbors 2 over its predecessor as a Zac Efron showcase; or a casual homage to Clueless: “Way harsh, Tai.” I laughed at Noah’s admiration for Will’s lawyering skills in the Luke incident (“You Legally Blonded him!”), and even at throwaway gags like Erin’s WiFi password (Ch3rryJon3s).

The shuffle of EDM with snatches of Bach and Vivaldi deftly reaffirms the story’s foundations in a period piece, while music also plays a lovely role in loosening up two stiff characters — Will in a goofy dance-off and Howie doing a tender karaoke version of Britney Spears’ “Sometimes,” with Luke and Keegan on backup. Even when it’s shamelessly sentimental, the movie’s charms hold up; Ahn handles the change of pace to bubblier material than his first two films — both of which were gentler, more interior dramas — with assurance.

In terms of gay destinations, I’ll confess I go for the relatively mellow vibe of Provincetown over the circuit-party hedonism of Fire Island. But even if the glossily rendered setting is not your scene, there’s a lot to like here. Charlie, the pretty white guy, is not the prize but instead, after a bunch of dumb missteps, has to prove he’s worthy of Howie’s affections. That in itself feels like a plus in a pleasurable mainstream entertainment that puts queer characters of color first — just as Jane Austen was among the earliest female writers to foreground strong women characters. Fire Island gets points for representation and has a good time waving the flag.

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