It is a truth universally acknowledged that Noah (Joel Kim Booster) and his circle of friends, in possession of an amazing house on Fire Island, consider their annual week together in the New York summer hotspot to be something sacred. To be fair, it’s not their house per se — it belongs to Erin (the majestic Margaret Cho!), a nurturing mother figure who bought the place using her lawsuit-settlement winnings and has hosted this gaggle of twentysomethings for ages. But all of these young, queer men consider this their collective home away from home. And now that Noah’s best friend, Howie (SNL MVP Bowen Yang), has left the East Coast for a cushy job at a Silicon Valley startup, it’s the only time these two guys get any significant time together.
In fact, Noah has made it his mission to make sure his uptight, insecure pal has a good time this year, partially to take care of his brother-from-another-mother and partially because it’s their last hurrah: Erin has to sell the place. (Her example for being financially irresponsible to a fault: “I was an early investor in Quibi.” Point taken.) Which is why, when a hot doctor named Charlie (James Scully) smiles at Howie from across a crowded room, Noah decides to play matchmaker. The upside: The whole gang, including the bookish Max (Torian Miller), and the tag-team hedonists Luke (Matt Rogers) and Keegan (Tomas Matos), gets access to a whole other swanky world on the island. The downside: That world is mostly rich, elitist, lily-white and casually — or not-so-casually — racist as fuck.
And then there’s Charlie’s friend, Will (Conrad Ricamora). A perpetually frowning misanthrope, he’s not crazy about this possible Charlie/Howie hook-up. In fact, he doesn’t seem too hyped about anything else on the island either, especially Noah — never mind that they both love Alice Munro short stories. Every exchange between these two men involves awkward silences, endless bickering, or some horribly uncomfortable combination of the two. Will these two men, so clearly wrong for each other and yet, so clearly right for each other, end up falling in love? Do we really need to explain that this question is rhetorical?
Part contemporary spin on Pride & Prejudice and part travelogue for the island’s real-life gay mecca known as the Pines, Fire Island never leaves any doubt as to whether its variation on Elisabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy are destined eventually to get together. That’s a given. Nor does it make you wonder just how much director Andrew Ahn (Driveways) and writer-producer-star Booster will lean into the specifics that characterize the popular vacation destination; the movie’s restaging of the novel’s introductory society ball at a tea dance immediately lets you know exactly where you’re at. A romantic comedy set within the LGBTQ+ community isn’t new. One that tells its tale of general incivility being the very essence of love in between detours through underwear nights at clubs and cruising at the Pines Pantry is mining a very particular locale’s culture, however. It’s a valentine to a communal gay experience, penned in a way that’s uniquely both insular and inviting. You could see this film doing for the Ice Palace what Serendipity did for the Wollman ice rink.
It’s also the sort of movie that wants to deliver those big, unabashedly broad rom-com moments while having characters scream about how someone is getting their big, unabashedly broad rom-com moment. There are times when you can feel the movie straining to connect too many riffs, tick off too many boxes, pave over too many weak spots all at once. It’s best to think of Fire Island as a showcase for Booster, an incredible stand-up comedian who channels his act’s sensibility to the screen without losing anything in the translation. It also helps that he and Ricamora, who has the shy-sexy-surly vibe down to a science, generate a genuine chemistry together, and that he has Bowen Yang as his wingman. (The big complaint: It needs about 78 percent more Bowen in it.)
There’s a winning case being made here for Booster as leading-man material, but perhaps more importantly, there’s also a territorial flag being planted in a genre that has long relegated gay people to quirky sidekick and/or moral-support roles. This romantic comedy has its share of those archetypes. It also has gay lead characters, gay love interests, gay heroes, gay villains, and gay people of color galore. That doesn’t excuse some of the clunkier, more brochure-friendly scenarios that Fire Island throws at them. But it does give you the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing everyone to this picture-perfect spot and inviting them to the party in the Pines, had been the means of uniting them.