In my needlessly personal and passionately incoherent review of and apologia for Bros, I neglected to mention that it was not the only gay romcom that came out this year. It wasn’t even the only one with Bowen Yang in it. Fire Island flew a bit further under the radar than Bros did, and although I’d like to give our dear friend Billy Eichner an object lesson about how something that isn’t associated with a Twitter tantrum might end up being better received critically than something that is, we can probably chalk the overall absence of Fire Island from the conversation up to racism. The only upside is that being outside of the conversation also puts you outside of The Discourse. Small mercies.
Fire Island is a contemporary gay update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, sort of. Here, the biological Bennett family of the novel is replaced with a family of choice. Mrs. Bennett is replaced by Erin (Margaret Cho), who turned the misfortune of accidentally eating a piece of glass at an Olive Garden (or equivalent) into a house on notorious gay mecca Fire Island. In lieu of daughters, she is visited for a week every year by five gay men who are all at some point in the process of crossing the threshold from young adulthood to plain old adulthood adulthood. Max (Torian Miller) is the big guy of the group who loves to pretend that he’s “above” getting down and dirty on the island but who’s really the dirtiest of them all; hyper femme Keegan (Tomás Matos) wears crop tops and as little else as possible and also loves Marisa Tomei; while Luke (Matt Rogers) is also largely defined character-wise by his love of Marisa Tomei, although he also gets to be more involved in the actual plot than Max and Keegan as he takes Lydia Bennett’s role of being socially compromised by an immoral interloper. The real stars, however, are Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster as Howie (the Jane) and Noah (the Elizabeth and therefore our primary viewpoint character), who are clearly the two closest of the group, despite Howie having moved away from NYC to work on the west coast. The sexy, gym-bodied Noah provides the voiceover for the film, which starts with the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Noah then reveals his playboy nature to us by noting that not every man is looking to settle down. This is less true of Howie, who, at age thirty and dad-bodded, is stressed that he’s never had a boyfriend and fears that he’ll never get the romcom romance of his dreams.
Upon arrival to the island, Erin reveals that she’s broke (she invested too much in Quibi) and will have to sell the house soon, meaning that this is the last summer that the crew will have together at the house, unless one of the sisters can marry a wealthy man like Mr. Darcy. Wait, no that’s not quite right; everything before the Darcy stuff is accurate, but no one needs to marry, sorry. Noah agrees to avoid getting laid until he successfully wingmans for Howie and, having committed himself thus, sets out to accomplish his mission with gusto. Howie immediately hits it off with Charlie (James Scully), while Noah is initially drawn to the sullen Will (Conrad Ricamora) but then is put off by him after overhearing Will being grumpy in that traditional Mr. Darcy way. I’m being quite literal, by the way; Darcy says of Elizabeth that she is “not handsome enough to tempt him,” while Will says of Noah that “he’s not hot enough to be that annoying.” But of course, as we all know, you can’t keep an Elizabeth and a Darcy apart forever. They may loathe each other for a while due to operating under bad first impressions, but they’re going to end up together. That’s just how this works.
Fire Island is a fun, breezy, unpretentious movie. While I might have gotten more actual chuckles out of Bros, Fire Island is much more charming. One of the problems with Bros is the extent to which it felt the need to announce how important it was. And, I mean yeah, I wrote almost 3500 words about it; it is important. But it also never lets you forget that it knows how sophisticated and ground-breaking it believes itself to be, while Fire Island aims to be exactly what it is and quietly succeeds in being the best possible version of that thing. The pop culture references are funnier without needing to be so … explicative? Debra Winger’s bog monologue about how all gay men come to her with their relationship issues because in their minds she’s Grace Adler is funny, sure, but it has nothing on Keegan and Luke reciting dialog from My Cousin Vinny in an increasingly agitated hysteria because they’re stuck playing a celebrity guessing game with someone who doesn’t know who Marisa Tomei is. The jokes that allude to or directly cite other movies here are refreshing both in brevity and the fact that the film doesn’t need to belabor the audience with an explanation when, for instance, one character calls out another for being catty with the line “Way harsh, Tai.” If you get it, then you get it, and if you don’t, the movie’s already moved on to the next plot beat.
What also makes things work here is honesty. Noah and Howie are kindred spirits because each recognizes in the other the way that Asian men are ostracized within the community, and it brings them closer. Noah, however, can’t see past this surface similarity to be completely open and honest with himself about the way that he and the schlubbier Howie are treated differently on the island because of how one matches a very particular set of beauty standards and the other doesn’t. As someone with a fat body that prevents me from having the same social cachet as my better looking friends, this really hit home for me; not to keep comparing this to Bros, but in that movie, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the white, conventionally attractive Eichner feeling sorry for himself for his lack of a boyfriend while consistently hooking up with other attractive people was alienating and, frankly, dishonest. Howie’s emotional scene in which he begs Noah to really look at the two of them and see that although they are both two East Asian gay men who face the same ostracization from the mainstream, pretending Howie has the same more social credit as Noah—with his toned abs and perky pecs—is actually hurting Howie, even if Noah is trying to hype his friend up. Bros felt the constant need to draw attention to itself as “groundbreaking” gay cinema while Fire Island creates something that is fresh and new and hopeful simply by modernizing one of the cornerstones of romantic literature. If you’re only going to watch one, it should be this one.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
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