By Noah Gittell
Once, we knew love. The romantic comedy has been a vital cog in the Hollywood machine since the beginning of the studio system. Watching two people flirt and fall in love is how stars were made. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that both rom-coms and movie stars are in short supply these days. The genre reached its apex, at least in sheer volume, in the 1990s and has slowly fallen out of favor. These days, the rom-com generally feels like an antiquated genre. It’s too reliant on ideas about dating, romance, and sexuality that have no cultural currency, and studio executives would rather stake their careers on safer ideas, like the millionth underwhelming superhero flick or another underwhelming animated movie with celebrity voices.
No worries: “Fire Island” is here to save us. The sweet and saucy rom-com succeeds by layering the oldest tropes of the genre into a new and specific setting. It’s set on Fire Island, where every summer thousands of young gay men gather to party their troubles away. It also opens with a quotation from Jane Austen and then essentially lifts its plot from “Pride and Prejudice”. Once your mind adjusts to the juxtaposition, it’s astounding how natural a fit it is.
Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who also co-wrote the script) is our Elizabeth Bennet, a commitment-phobic urbanite who loves meddling in the love lives of his friends, especially the perpetually shy Howie (Bowen Yang). While his friends are out partying in their underwear, Noah makes an effort to help Howie find love, or at least a partner for the week. “Fire Island” is laced with profanity and overflowing with (very) raunchy humor, but it holds a sweetly emotional core. It’s a film about chosen families, and how those bonds can begin to fracture as its members grow and change.
Virtually anyone who lived through their 20s will relate, but what elevates “Fire Island” is how it uses Austen to deepen its insight into the world it portrays. Class divisions in the gay community are exposed in “Fire Island”, as Noah and Howie end up crossing paths with another group of friends who are partying at a distinctly higher income tax bracket. The script is insightful about the passive-aggression and defensiveness that can accompany the intermingling of economic classes, which has a double effect. It brings nuance to a portrayal of the gay community that is too often depicted as monolithic in film, and it creates genuine human drama that reveals character and pushes the plot forward.
Neither the comedy nor the hard-earned drama would be successful without the stellar across-the-board performances. The casting agents in charge of “Fire Island” deserve kudos, as every actor in the film fits perfectly into the world they’ve created. They can all land a punchline, but none ever devolve into cartoonish portrayals. Booster and Bowen are the headline attractions, and they forge a meaningful chemistry as characters who feel doubly ostracized from mainstream society, not just as gay men but also as Asian-Americans. The racial elements of “Fire Island”, always there but rarely emphasized, add texture to what is already a rich and rewarding story. Their friends and lovers are all well-conceived and acted, with especially fine work by Conrad Ricamora, playing Will, a quiet, standoffish lawyer who serves as the film’s Mr. Darcy. It’s clear from his first nasty frown where his character is headed, but that’s just how rom-coms work, and Ricamora is so effortlessly charming, it hardly matters.
The shocking bursts of humor and the sharp cultural observations are held together by director Andrew Ahn, who was last seen directing the independent drama “Driveways”, featuring the final performance by Brian Dennehy as a war veteran who befriends an Asian-American youngster and his single mother. Ahn has a way with gently affecting stories that reflect the rhythms of real life, and while he wisely cedes much of the film to his charismatic performers, there are a few moments of lyricism that stand out. In one early morning scene, we watch a fawn emerge from the woods and nibble some grass while the humans are sleeping off their hangovers. Later, as two key characters drop their guard and connect emotionally, Ahn turns up the music and drops their dialogue, so we process their connection through body language alone. It’s remarkable how a few artful choices can elevate a comedy.
After years of struggling to stay afloat, the romantic comedy has found its way to the shore. It’s here at “Fire Island”.
<“Fire Island” is currently streaming on Hulu.>