Fire Island debuts on Hulu on June 3.
Filmmaker Andrew Ahn is one of America’s underrated gems. His debut feature, Spa Night, was a harrowing indie about a closeted Korean American teen, and the shattered dreams of his immigrant parents. Its indie follow-up, Driveways, told a gentle story of loss and regret, and featured a young gay boy. His latest, the Searchlight-produced Fire Island, also features prominent gay Asian characters, but is an enormous swing in the opposite direction: it’s a riotous studio comedy about a group of boisterous gay men on a week-long vacation, and it also happens to be an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Despite its premise differing wildly from that classic novel, it goes above and beyond as a modern retelling, resulting in not only one of the funniest, most complete pieces of entertainment this year, but one of the best Jane Austen movies in a generation.
It begins with Austen’s famous opening to Pride — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” — as narrated by sarcastic protagonist Noah (Joel Kim Booster, the film’s screenwriter), who immediately rejects this premise. Poor, gay, and wanting nothing less than monogamy, he meets up with his excitable best friends, Howie (Bowen Yang), Keegan (Tomas Matos), Luke (Matt Rogers), and Max (Torian Miller) for their annual trip to Fire Island, the famous gay shoreside getaway a few hours from NYC, where their older, attention-starved lesbian friend Erin (Margaret Cho) has a beach house waiting for them as always. As it turns out, Erin’s financial situation has taken a turn, which means the house may not be hers for very long — which also means that this could be the last time the friend group gathers for this particular escape, so they try to make the most of it.
Noah wants nothing more than for the soft-spoken Howie — his closest confidante — to get laid, but Howie is more of a walks-on-the-beach romantic type, so he immediately gets sucked into the orbit of kindly rich kid Charlie (James Scully) and his more snobbish pals. Noah is determined to keep his plans for Howie on track, despite the best efforts of Charlie’s protective best friend Will (Conrad Ricamora), a stern, silent lawyer who immediately rubs Noah the wrong way — and vice versa. The film’s characters map more or less perfectly onto those of the book, especially Noah as a more snappy and combative Elizabeth Bennet, and Will as an equally biting Fitzwilliam Darcy. The book’s “She isn’t handsome enough to tempt me,” which Darcy says about Elizabeth, is even translated and modernized to Will’s exponentially more catty “He isn’t hot enough to be that annoying,” which Noah happens to overhear, kicking off a riveting tension between them.
The two friend groups have wildly different cadences and ideas of fun, so when they begin spending time together, it feels like two galaxies colliding on their way to pandemonium. If Noah’s friends weren’t funny enough on their own — they are; their banter practically never ends, and each actor tosses themselves into physical comedy — things become twice as hilarious when their loud, unapologetic attempts to stay young clash with Charlie & co.’s more centered approach to having a good time (not to mention, their more “cultured” upper-class façade). When a man from Will’s past enters the picture — the classically handsome, broad-shouldered Dex (Zane Phillips), Fire Island’s equivalent of George Wickham — things get even more complicated, since Noah is immediately drawn to him, thus splitting his attention between his wingman duties and his own deepening pocket of drama.
Things play out exactly as you would expect from a Pride and Prejudice movie, only the Georgian-era repression is replaced with biting passive aggression, and everyone is wearing the least amount of clothes humanly possible. Ahn and cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey are as adept at capturing intimate emotional moments — often in isolated closeups that last long enough for characters’ insecurities to peek through — as they are at making the frame feel alluring through lingering shots of jawlines and sweat glistening off men’s torsos during pulse-pounding parties. There’s a thin line between the film’s emotional and sexual energy, and the drama often winds them together whenever Will and Noah are forced to interact. It makes the source material’s tension between distaste and desire feel immediate and alive.
Most supporting characters fall in one of two categories: they’re either lovable, like Noah’s friends, or detestable, like Will’s (with the obvious exception of Charlie), but Noah and Will ignite passionate complications whenever they’re together. Noah is rude and short-tempered, and even though this is eventually contextualized as a defense mechanism — my kingdom for a mainstream American movie that doesn’t feel the need to put this into words — it doesn’t actually depend on this explanation to become a mirror for real self-destructive tendencies. You can always see the wheels turning in Booster’s head, and the way his own behavior rankles him before he quickly hides his true feelings away.
Will is similarly caught between a dour disposition and a desire to be better. Ricamora turns him into a top-shelf Mr. Darcy, both through the unique flourishes he brings to his interpretation — a lanky, stiff awkwardness despite his attractive presence — and the classically “Darcy” way he peels back the character’s layered earnestness (it also helps that Ricamora’s deep voice commands any given scene). Where does he rank among the other on-screen Darcys? Incredibly highly. In my recent review of Operation Mincemeat, I happened to make passing mention of how that film misuses the charm of two of the greatest Darcy actors, Colin Firth (from the BBC version) and Matthew Macfadyen (from the Joe Wright film), both of whose most memorable moments featured them soaking wet, between Firth’s emergence from a lake and Macfadyen confessing in the pouring rain. In an act of kindness, Ahn blesses us with his own version of this dashing motif — intentionally or otherwise — during a confrontation between Noah and Will, and it’s one of the sexiest, most viscerally exciting scenes in any American film this year.
The stakes of getting laid have never felt higher, and when it seems like the vacation is about to end, Ahn manages to imbue the mere boarding of a Fire Island ferry with all the weight and finality of Frodo sailing into the West. It’s a downright magnificent film that puts most modern studio comedies to shame. There isn’t a single joke that doesn’t land with gut-busting precision (even the most ludicrous, over-the-top gags are deeply character-centric), and when the filmmakers want to slow things down and make you take stock of key relationships, Ahn and de Ray know precisely how to paint with light in order to make moments feel like memories.