Movie Curiosities: Fire Island
Fire Island was set and shot on the eponymous island in Suffolk County, off the coast of Long Island in New York. More specifically, it takes place in Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, both of which have been more or less fused together since the ’70s to serve as an LGBTQ bastion where it’s Pride Month all year long. The film portrays it as Gay Disneyworld, an outrageously expensive tropical island paradise where queer people can (un)dress however they want, do whatever drugs they want, fuck whomever they please, and so on.
Our protagonist is Noah, played by screenwriter Joel Kim Booster. He’s a fiercely independent Asian gay man hopping between one-night-stands, skeptical that he would ever want to find that one perfect monogamous partner, even if he could. His best friend is Howie (Bowen Yang), who’s sweet and smart and cute and everyone likes him, but he’s too darn sensitive for his own good. We’ve also got Max (Torian Miller), a comic relief character more comfortable with books than drugs; along with Luke and Keegan (respectively played by Matt Rogers and Tomas Matos), a couple of flamboyant fools consistently making asses of themselves.
These five good friends are spread throughout the country, but make a yearly tradition out of coming to spend a week on Fire Island. They’re hosted by Erin (Margaret Cho), a lesbian who got rich off an insurance scam, bought a house on Fire Island, and positioned herself as the surrogate mother to our five gay friends. Trouble is, Erin’s cash has finally dried up and this will probably be the last year she’ll have the Fire Island house, so everyone has to make this week count.
(Side note: This project started out as a series for the ill-fated Quibi, until that platform inevitably shut down. Understandably bitter about this, the filmmakers wrote a line for Cho that burns the platform in a big way.)
In case it wasn’t already clear, the opening line of dialogue will flat-out tell you that this is a Jane Austen adaptation. This is a modern queer riff on “Pride and Prejudice.” All the major characters and story beats are here. We’ve got Conrad Ricamora playing the Mr. Darcy stand-in, we’ve got James Scully playing the Mr. Bingley character, we’ve got Zane Phillips playing the George Wickham analogue… it’s all here. I don’t even have to describe the plot or the characters or the convoluted relationships between them (and thank the gods for that) because it’s freaking “Pride and Prejudice”.
That said, it is an adaptation that crams the entire story into a 105-minute film. The original story takes place over several months and this movie is confined to a week. As a direct result, a lot of story beats have been omitted and characters have either been fused together or omitted entirely. Erin, for example, is a fusion of the Bennett parents, combining Mr. Bennett’s sagely dry wit with Mrs. Bennett’s obsessive fussing — I don’t think anyone could’ve made that work so well except for Margaret Cho. I might add that William Collins, Charlotte Lucas, and their whole storyline was completely excised, which was probably for the best.
But then we have Nick Adams in the role of Cooper. At first, he appears to be the Catherine Bingley analogue, cockblocking Noah so he can have Will (that’s the Darcy analogue) to himself. But later on, Cooper takes on the Lady Catherine role, trying to get Will back together with an old ex-boyfriend (Rhys, played by Michael Graceffa). So, does Cooper want Will for himself or for someone else? And if it’s the latter, then why? It doesn’t make any sense.
That said, the film gets a lot of leeway by telling us right up front that it has no intention of being a faithful adaptation. The source material exists as a framework for the plot and the characters. It certainly helps that so much of the movie is a fast-paced, sex-fueled, drug-addled, psychedelic rave — the characters are all acting on pure instinct in the moment, only rarely thinking anything through, and any lapses in logic are easily overlooked when the audience can share in that mindset.
Crucially, the film gets away with appropriating the Austen text because it gets the most important parts right: The characters and the dialogue. The original story is a timeless classic precisely because of the deep-seated friendships, the painful betrayals, the razor-sharp comedic banter, and the dynamite romantic chemistry between the characters. All of which are faithfully adapted and brilliantly updated for a modern queer setting.
Taking Jane Austen’s rapier wit and parlaying that into the time-honored gay practice of “throwing shade” was a stroke of unmitigated genius. The characters of Austen’s novel were heavily stratified by economic status, and the rich/poor disparity has only grown wider since. The original plot was heavily dependent on gossip, rumors, and scandals, all of which are supercharged in the age of social media. Last but not least, while Austen’s characters used fashion and parties to show themselves off and make themselves look more prestigious than they really were, the LGBTQ parties on Fire Island have taken that to a whole ‘nother level.
There is, however, one especially huge difference between the themes of the film and the themes of the book. In the original novel, the Bennett sisters — most especially Jane and Elizabeth — were under all-consuming pressure to get married so their elderly father would have a direct male heir before he died. The girls’ security was hopelessly and completely dependent on getting married and marrying wealthy or they’d all likely end up on the streets.
The film could’ve easily gone in that direction, putting pressure on Howie and/or Noah hooking up with some wealthy boyfriend who could take purchase of Erin’s house and keep everything going the way it is. But the film doesn’t do that. Instead, the movie puts a clear thematic focus on the passage of time. This week on Fire Island is portrayed as a joyous and magical yet unsustainable retreat from the rest of the world. The week will end and the annual visits may taper off, but the friendships and memories made here will carry all of these characters through the drudgery of life outside the island.
All good things must come to an end, but they can still last forever.
There’s not much else to say about Fire Island — it’s a modern queer adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”, straightforward in its adaptation of the storylines and character arcs. Yet the film updates the themes and dynamics to fit with modern gay culture, which turns out to be a shockingly marvelous fit. The end result is a funny, sexy, romantic, timely, unapologetically flamboyant good time.
I sincerely hope that this will be a hit with the LGBTQ community who are still painfully underrepresented in cinema. But how will it play to the straight crowd? Again, this is where the “Pride and Prejudice” angle pays dividends, as the familiar source text serves as a helpful jumping-on point for anyone unfamiliar with gay culture. Trouble is, I’m not sure how big the overlap is between straight people — particularly straight men — and those who like “Pride and Prejudice”.
I can only say for my part that I am a straight man with a soft spot for “Pride and Prejudice”, and I had a great time with this movie.
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