Meat Rack cute – Film Review: Fire Island ★★★★

Jane Austen was an astute observer of human behaviour. Behaviour that’s changed very little in the two hundred years or so since she wrote Pride and Prejudice, the nuances of which can just as readily be found among gay men summering on Fire Island in 2022 as they could in Austen’s nineteenth century high society Hertfordshire, or Helen Fielding’s 90s London in the world of Bridget Jones for that matter.

While reading Pride and Prejudice on vacation on Fire Island, screenwriter and star, Joel Kim Booster, had the genius idea to make a movie inspired by Austen’s classic novel set in the present-day Pines. Booster saw the source material as a way into examining notions of a gay hierarchy—that’s often heightened in all-gay spaces—and the specificities of how it manifests in that particular East Coast queer enclave. Posing the question, like a queer Carrie Bradshaw: what happens when there aren’t any straight people around to oppress us? How do we oppress each other?

The cast of the film FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

Although the Pines has become more diverse in recent years, it remains a predominantly wealthy white gym-toned gay male space, to the extent that anyone who doesn’t tick the majority those boxes might feel othered at some point while maneuvering its quaint wooden walkways. It’s a setting that’s rich for Booster to mine for the distinctions, both subtle and not so subtle, that gay “society” makes between class, body type, ideas about masculinity, and race. The kind of thinking that leads to those notorious hookup app bios declaring “no fats, no femmes, no Asians”, as one character quips towards the beginning of the film, noting that despite Booster’s character, Noah, having cultivated a ripped body with abs for days, “he’s still two out of the three”.

The beautiful thing about Fire Island is that it while it insightfully addresses and examines those micro aggressions within the gay community—why some feel the need to feel superior and the intricacies of internalized homophobia—it does so in a bright and breezy, immediately lovable, whip-smart, sun, sea, sand, and sex package of queer magic; making this the queer vacation comedy we deserve. Like a perfect date: witty, charming, damn sexy, and with something to say. It also does so without deriding the Pines itself, while authentically capturing the essence of what it’s like to spend time there.

Bowen Yang, Tomas Matos, Matt Rogers, Torian Miller and Joel Kim Booster in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

It’s a movie that wears its origins on its sleeve. As the film opens we catch a glimpse of a copy of Pride and Prejudice in Noah’s Bedstuy apartment, as he quotes “the queen”, Ms Austen’s opening line of the novel as the first line of his voice over: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. Before quickly dismissing his girl Jane’s words as “hetero nonsense”. “Not every single man is looking for a wife”, protests Noah. He isn’t even looking for a husband, believing “monogamy is a disease created by straight people to make us less interesting.”

We meet Noah as he’s abruptly awoken on the morning after a one night stand, running late to catch the ferry from Sayville for his annual trip to “gay Disneyworld”. On his way to the boat, he casually drops the gay slur f-bomb in his voice over, a word he says he’s reclaiming. Having grown up watching countless rom-coms where “f*g” was thrown about for an easy joke, it feels particularly powerful to have it reclaimed in that very genre, not to mention it being part of a queer rom-com, and rarer still, one that centres queer Asian American characters.

Tomas Matos, Matt Rogers and Torian Miller in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

To Noah, “f*ggots” is just a term of endearment for his “sisters”. And like the Bennet sisters of Austen’s novel, there are five of them, Noah’s chosen family of queer men; drama school rejects but eternal show queens Luke (Matt Rogers) and Keegan (Tomás Matos), the intellectual bookworm Max (Torian Miller), and BFF Howie (Bowen Yang), who Noah describes as “the best of us on every level”. They’re all headed to stay in the relatively modest, tumbledown, but welcoming Pines home of “lesbian scam queen”, the matriarch of the group, Erin (Margaret Cho). Soon after their arrival, a tearful Erin announces that she’s hit financial woes and will soon be forced to sell her house there; meaning that this week is likely to be their last Fire Island vacation together.

Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

After a rather frenzied opening ten minutes, there’s a tranquil, touching scene atop Erin’s roof—one of my favorites in the movie—as Noah and Howie, who now lives on the West Coast, catch up. Yang and Booster, who are friends in real life, convincingly convey the tenderness and history between their characters who first bonded as harassed brunch waiters. When it comes to love, they’re polar opposites. While Noah is guarded and deeply cynical about relationships, suspicious of the “monogamy industrial complex”, Howie is adorably open, a die-hard romantic in search of his real life rom-com moment. Determined to help his friend find his happily ever after—well, at least get him laid on the island—Noah decides upon a misguided mission, vowing not to have sex himself until Howie has a man.

James Scully, Nick Adams and Conrad Ricamora in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

Cue a queer meet cute at an iconic Pines venue, the daily early evening ritual of Low Tea cocktails at the Blue Whale, where Howie immediately falls for—literally, Bowen is as adept at physical comedy as he is with his verbal skills—the attractive, preppy, and fabulously rich pediatrician Charlie (James Scully). However, while Howie and Charlie hit it off, there’s instant tension between Noah and Charlie’s inner circle, the rather haughty lawyer Will (Conrad Ricamora) and snooty brand manager Cooper (Nick Adams), who are staying with Charlie in his ocean-front mansion. Noah preemptively feels judged by the men, and quickly puts up his prickly protective armour.

Matt Rogers, Zane Phillips and Tomas Matos in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

The next day, while he’s busily denting food cans in the hope of getting a reduction on them at the Pines Pantry, Noah encounters the devilishly handsome Dex (Zane Phillips), who has a mysterious history with Will, who makes his distain for Dex clear, holding a grudge against him for some reason. From there on, the plot continues to stay true to many of the beats of Austen’s novel, but never feels remotely restricted by its inspiration, but rather energized by it, with Booster leaving himself plenty of scope for surprises along the way.

Conrad Ricamora and Joel Kim Booster in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

Given the Fire Island setting, there’s an appropriately sex-soaked atmosphere, with some brief—but thanks to director Andrew Ahn’s queer male gaze—refreshingly explicit, sex positive and unfetishized scenes of group sex, that aren’t in there to shock, but woven in as part of the fabric of the film. From dark room encounters at the underwear party (cost of entry, “$20 and some dignity”) to a house party afterwards where Noah unwittingly walks in on an orgy. When it comes to the infamous and cherished cruising ground of the Meat Rack though, Ahn and Booster subvert our expectations with a surprisingly moving sequence between Noah and Will.

Every rom-com needs a memorable scene in a rainstorm, and this a majestic one, brilliantly acted by Ricamora, whose reserve as Will (with deep emotion bubbling just beneath the surface) and measured delivery, has something of Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr Darcy in the beloved 1995 British miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice about it, and is just as winning. Finally we have our very own gay Mr Darcy in the dashingly handsome Ricamora’s Will, who comes across as just arrogant, stand-offish and awkward enough for us to see him through Noah’s eyes and grasp the tension between them, while retaining his magnetic charm. As Noah sums things up, as his feelings for Will creep up on him and confuse him; “somehow I’m mad and horny!” In fact, every scene between Noah and Will is captivating, drawing us in as Ahn lands the film’s dramatic and moving moments just as successfully as the comedy.

Joel Kim Booster in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

As a writer, Booster has created a gaggle of deliciously flawed characters (including a couple of villains) who, like our own close friends, we love not just in spite of their foibles but maybe even because of them. That includes a beautifully complex lead character in Noah—jaded and cynical with a biting wit—played by another actor he could have been insufferable, but as portrayed by Booster he’s endlessly engaging, endearing and funny; not to mention charismatic, sexy, and let’s face it, drop-dead gorgeous. Behind Noah’s brittle veneer, Booster allows us to see through the cracks, allowing his vulnerability to shine through. Similarly, in an another actor and writer’s hands the film’s extensive use of voice over might have become waring, but instead Booster enchants and amuses with a delivery that has an intoxicating rhythm to to it. It’s never merely expository, but allows us to hear Noah’s inner-monologue, which at times contradicts what’s he’s saying aloud, and at one point when he’s high at the club, hilariously his thoughts spill out into the audible. David Tabbert’s costume design informs characterization too, with splashes of pieces by queer fashion favoruite Patrick Church popping on the screen, while Noah spends the majority of the movie in his bathing suit, which is very Fire Island, very easy on the eye, and again tells us a lot about his character.

Bowen Yang, Tomas Matos, Matt Rogers, Torian Miller, Joel Kim Booster and Margaret Cho in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

The entire ensemble delivers fantastic performances and all have their moment to shine, with a fun extended cameo from Drag Race alum and LGBTQ+ activist Peppermint as an Ice Palace drag queen, and a stand out turn by Margaret Cho. With relatively little screen time, Cho establishes such a fully formed character that I’d love to see a spin-off movie centred on Erin’s adventures, but then again that might take away from the alluring enigma she builds here. We see her inhabiting her role as house mother to these boys—a warm, open-minded, loving Mrs Madrigal type—as well as the intriguing woman with a life lived to the max behind that persona, and in Cho’s hands it is of course hilarious.

Shot on location, the film captures the contemporary Fire Island experience, with details like the friendly older guys who wave on the walkways, while some of the younger hot (though probably insecure) ones sneer like high school mean girls as they pass by. For anyone who knows the place, it’s a lot of fun spotting many of the bars and landmarks, including Fire Island icon Robin Byrd, who makes a brief but memorable appearance. There’s even a nod to Pines history, and our queer ancestors, with a montage of vintage photographs as Noah and co head to the continuing nightly tradition of the tea dance. Wisely though, Fire Island doesn’t set out to be the definitive FIP movie, but rather a film about a group of friends that’s set there; a liberating distinction for Booster.

Matt Rogers, Bowen Yang and Tomas Matos Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

Felipe Vara de Rey’s stunning sun-drenched cinematography sweeps us away to this island gaytopia with aerial shots that have a touch of fantasy about them, especially when paired with Kathleen’s enchanting cover of Pure Imagination as we first arrive. Ahn also uses his camera, with lingering closeups, to enhance the romance, and there’s some exquisite use of slow motion, which conveys Noah and Will’s shared concept of how time seems to pass differently on Fire Island.

Torian Miller, Bowen Yang, Margaret Cho, Tomas Matos and Joel Kim Booster in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

With a killer soundtrack that features recent Pines anthems like Charli XCX’s Boys, and eternal ones like the queen of disco Donna Summer’s Last Dance—and of course a requisite rom-com feel-good Britney karaoke sequence—there’s also a beautifully delicate score by composer Jay Wadley. Integral to the film, its classical touches feel like a hat-tip to the screenplay’s nineteenth century origins. Ahn is never over reliant on it, yet Wadley’s work always helps to establish the film’s distinctive tone, which like its dialogue, although snappy and biting at times, clearly comes from a place that’s heartfelt and sweet.

There’s also fun to be had from Fire Island being almost as knowing and self-referential about rom-coms as Scream is about horror, with the characters referencing the Austen-inspired Clueless (pulling out those rolling with the homies hand moves at point) and Noah praising Will by saying “you Legally Blonded him”. While Noah and Howie have their own rom-com inspired way of greeting each other, by pressing their index fingers together, and Howie reels off his own favourite romantic movie scenes.

Margaret Cho, Tomas Matos, Bowen Yang, Joel Kim Booster, and Matt Rogers in FIRE ISLAND. Photo by Jeong Park. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios.

Not a moment of screen time is wasted, from the delightful in-character cast singalong to the iconic Searchlight fanfare as film opens, to the cast chiming in again as the final seconds of the end credits roll. Fire Island succeeds where so many studio comedies have faltered before it; it’s well-paced, consistently funny and disarming, with characters we’re invested in embodied by an excellent cast on fine form; and although it doesn’t stray too far from genre conventions, it nimbly queers and subverts them at times, and is never predictable. Delivering queer joy in abundance, Booster, Ahn, and company have created a thing of pure queer magic, which like my favourite summer music tracks, I know I’ll be returning to for many years to come. See you on the next ferry out to the Pines.

By James Kleinmann

Fire Island receives its world premiere at NewFest in New York on Thursday June 2nd and debuts on Hulu on Friday June 3rd, 2022.

FIRE ISLAND | Official Trailer | Searchlight Pictures
FIRE ISLAND | Official Poster | Searchlight Pictures

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