Recent Movie: Fire Island
[This post first appeared, in slightly different form, at Lawyers, Guns & Money.]
The conversation about the parlous state of the romantic comedy has been going on for so long that it has consumed not only buckets of virtual ink, but the real-world variety too. At this stage, it might be time to admit that the genre's heyday in the 80s and 90s was more of a blip than the long fallow period we've been in ever since. And yet, every few years someone comes up with a new killer app to save the romcom. Remember when (500) Days of Summer was going to revitalize the genre? Remember how, in the wake of the success of How I Met Your Mother, someone coined the term rom-sitcom and declared that from now on, all romcoms would be TV shows? Remember when Hulu crowed about screening the world's first Christmas romcom to focus on a lesbian couple, and then we watched with horrified fascination as Mackenzie Davis treated Kristen Stewart worse than any male romcom lead has ever treated his long-suffering girlfriend?
All of which is to say that I'm not going to declare Fire Island, an R-rated, gay, mostly-Asian romcom, the savior of the genre. We've been down this road too many times. But every now and then a movie comes along to remind us that it is still possible to tell good, romantic stories in this mode, and Fire Island—directed by Andrew Ahn and written by and starring Joel Kim Booster—is a particularly fine example. Partly, that might be because it's not strictly a romcom, but rather a cousin form, the Jane Austen retelling. The film's promotional materials rather coyly describe it as being "inspired by Pride and Prejudice", but it is in fact an almost note-for-note retelling of the novel. This is only one of the ways in which it is both fascinating and successful.
Booster plays Noah, one member of a five-man gay friend group that also includes shy, lonely Howie (Bowen Yang), bookish Max (Torian Miller), and irrepressible sluts Keegan and Luke (Tomás Matos and Matt Rogers). The fivesome are, as Noah's voiceover explains, "not like, poor-poor, but poor as in none of us have a chance of buying property, ever". Nevertheless, they're able to get away for a yearly holiday on the coveted gay retreat of Fire Island because their older lesbian friend Erin (Margaret Cho) owns a house on the island. But this year, Erin tearfully explains that due to some bad financial calls ("I was an early investor in Quibi!") she’s going to have to sell the house. Galvanized by the prospect of only one last summer at this paradisiacal retreat, Noah becomes determined to get Howie out of his funk by getting him laid, and fixes on cute doctor Charlie (James Scully) for the task. But Charlie comes complete with a disapproving friend posse who see Howie and the entire gang as beneath them. Not to mention a taciturn, severe best friend, Will (Conrad Ricamora), who immediately starts clashing with the sardonic, prickly Noah. Especially when Noah connects with heartthrob Dex (Zane Phililps), whom Will regards with barely-suppressed rage.
I collect Austen adaptations, and particularly those that try to transpose her stories to modern settings. One trap that a lot of them fall into is conceiving of Austen and her stories on purely romantic terms, ignoring the fact that she was just as much a social novelist. Pride and Prejudice is not merely a story about two people who go from mutual dislike to deep love, but of class tensions and desperate financial maneuvering. Booster seems to grasp this on a level not seen since, perhaps, Heckerling herself. I've seen some claims that Fire Island is as good as Clueless, and while I wouldn't go quite that far, it is probably the best Austen modernization since Clueless.
At first glance, Booster seems to have set himself an impossible task: how to translate Austen's story, underpinned as it is by rigid sexual mores and an obsession with marriage, to a setting where they are not only nonexistent, but anathema? The goal of vacationing on Fire Island isn't to find love or monogamous partnership, but to engage in non-stop sexual hedonism, and the film is entirely frank about the norms of its gay enclave, with no shortage of nudity and ribald conversation. And yet very quickly, Fire Island establishes its setting as an unexpectedly faithful analogue to Austen's "two inches of ivory", to which it acts as a window and a tour guide. The Fire Island of the movie has quite a few similarities with the country neighborhoods where Austen set her novels. It's small and bucolic. Everyone walks everywhere. There's one general store where you can meet (or observe) enticing newcomers. Gossip is a competitive sport. There are social rituals and events that everyone attends, with rigid dress codes (or rather, un-dress codes). Most importantly, there are fine-grained distinctions of class that determine one's worthiness—even if what’s being measured isn't how good a marriage you're likely to make, but how fuckable you are.
At the top of the pecking order are white, affluent gays with sculpted abs and beachfront property. The multi-racial, borderline-broke, none-too-svelte friend group at the film's center are thus seen as interlopers in most of the spaces they venture into, and particularly among Charlie's set. Musclebound Noah acts as a bridge between the two strata, determinedly shepherding an increasingly despondent Howie in spaces where his very presence raises eyebrows. Though Noah insists that a night of passion (with a "high value" man) will fix Howie's malaise, it is actually rooted in a much deeper-seated issue, the years-brewing despair at being constantly rejected in the one space that is supposed to be just for you.
Some critics have needled Booster for casting himself in the role of Elizabeth, and then turning around and making that character "the hot one", whereas in the novel it's Jane (Howie) who is the beauty. But here, I think, Booster has grasped a deeper truth about the story he's adapting. Jane may be a beauty, but she's also too kind and earnest to play the games of courtship that a woman in her position has to play if she's to make a successful match, the ones that conceal how little she brings to the table besides her own self. It's Elizabeth who has developed the tools—the wit and good humor—that allow her to make her way in a society where she’s considered almost worthless. The tools that let her brush off Mr. Darcy's overheard insult, or insist to Lady Catherine de Burgh, in the face of all available evidence, that she and Darcy are social equals.
In a similar way, Noah's sculpted physique is an act of defiance, a way of asserting his value while also insisting that he doesn't care what the kind of people who put "no fats, no femmes, no Asians" on their grindr profiles think of him. "You did all this", Howie spits at Noah in a dark moment, gesturing at his gym-toned body, which suddenly becomes not an expression of self, but a piece of armor. And just as Elizabeth has to learn to lower her armor of wit and snap judgments, Noah has to consider whether his preemptive defense against rejection is stopping him from making a real connection with someone like Will.
Still, ultimately romance doesn't feel like the top thing on Fire Island's mind. Even after Charlie has made the grand romantic gesture that resolves his and Howie's relationship problems, Noah points out that this is, after all, just a vacation romance, and that out in the real world the two men will have to deal with the pressures of long distance relationships, job demands, and all the minutiae of their lives that they've been free to ignore on the island. As for Noah and Will, though they have tremendous chemistry (as anyone who fell in love with Ricamora in How to Get Away With Murder will know to expect), the film leaves them in an uncertain place, willing to explore what they have together but still not sure whether relationships are even for them. For that matter, if Fire Island has a flaw, it's that, given the ambiguous endings of both of the canonical Pride and Prejudice romances, and the fact that they are clearly the most important person in one another's lives, it’s never clear why Noah and Howie aren't a better endgame for one another than either of their designated love interests.
But that, perhaps, is what makes the film a great example of the modern, deconstructed romcom. It's not that we've ported the exact tropes of While You Were Sleeping or When Harry Met Sally to a gay setting and relationship, but that we're willing to consider that romance is only one aspect of life (and love). And in a way that's also true to Austen, whose books weren't exactly about love so much as they were about making your way in the world, figuring out how to be yourself—or your best self—in a society that doesn't value you. In Pride and Prejudice and its fellow novels, that goal is achieved by making a good marriage to someone who respects you. In Fire Island, it's by finding a group who accept you instead of constantly measuring your worth by wealth, race, and appearance.
So once again, Booster grasps a core truth of Austen's writing, even as he reimagines her stories in a setting that is so entirely foreign to them, and concludes them in a way that she—and the authors of most romantic comedies—would consider unsatisfying. At the end of the movie, no one shows up to rescue the gang from financial precarity, or to buy Erin's house and give it back to her. This is probably still their last summer on the island. The celebration that closes out the movie is not the kind you get in a traditional romcom, where marriage bells or even a passionate clinch signal that the lovers will live happily ever after. It's saying: we're happy now, we're together now. So let's celebrate.