“Alright, girls – what we rehearsed.”
Before the opening credits roll, before we meet any of our main characters, before the words “Searchlight Pictures” even grace our screens, “Fire Island” makes sure you know exactly what you’re in for. Another romantic comedy might have kept it simple, letting the familiar horns of the Searchlight fanfare ring out triumphantly as the movie begins – but not this one. Instead, the loud, atonal voices of our main characters blare out that famous theme for all to hear, like a symphony of joyful foghorns.
“Oh,” you’ll think, as the meta nature of it all sinks in. “I see what this is.”
But that winking, self-aware quality of “Fire Island,” a new gay romantic comedy from Hulu, is only half the story. Based on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “Fire Island” has a tender, silly, open-heartedness to it, that somehow manages to deconstruct the genre – critiquing its tendency to focus on the hetero, white, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryans of the world – while still leaning into the tropes we know and love with unbridled glee. The tension between romanticism and cynicism is borne out of the story’s central friendship, and that’s where “Fire Island” truly excels – not just as a romantic comedy, not just as an Austen adaptation, but as a story of two friends learning to dispel any notions they have about who gets the romantic happy ending.
Derision for romantic comedies – as well as some healthy scorn for Jane Austen herself – is present from the beginning. Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the screenplay), our Elizabeth Bennet stand-in, is a romance-adverse New Yorker on a summer trip to Fire Island with his four friends – the Bennet sisters, if you will. At the beginning of the trip, Noah makes it his mission to get his best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) laid, promising to stay celibate until he achieves that goal. There’s just one problem. Will (Conrad Ricamora), the uptight, snobby best friend of the object of Howie’s affections, seems intent on getting in the way. “Pride and Prejudice” diehards, I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.
Despite Noah’s protestations that Jane Austen wrote some “hetero nonsense,” or that a guy standing outside your window in the rain holding a boombox is just a fantasy, “Fire Island” is imbued with sensibilities of your favorite rom-coms, and all the swoonworthiness of your favorite Jane Austen novels. But the best chemistry in the film doesn’t come from the romantic relationship at its center – rather the platonic one.
There’s no doubt the real life friendship between Booster and Yang helped bring the onscreen relationship between Noah and Howie to life. The two performers feel so comfortable together, the rise and fall of their conversations so effortless, that even some of the film’s more overwrought dialogue feels grounded and natural. Friendship stories can be difficult to tell – how many have we seen where the conflict between friends feels contrived, drama for drama’s sake, leaving us wondering why these two are even friends in the first place? But the conflict between Noah and Howie arises organically, two friends trying to figure out how to continue to grow individually while still growing together.
The relationship between Howie and Noah mirrors the film’s push and pull between romanticism and cynicism. Many of their conversations center around their identities and the ways that mainstream LGBTQ+ culture can feel alienating to gay Asian men, a feeling they’ve both handled differently.
On one hand, Noah has weaponized his insecurity. He works out, has a hit-and-run approach to dating, and spends the entire movie swearing up and down he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him (although he clearly does).
Howie, on the other hand, is open about how other people’s opinions affect him, and has held on to the idea of true romance. “I want the romance bullshit. I like the rom-com stuff,” he says. Noah has spent years steeling himself against any hint of “rom-com stuff,” believing it easier to go ahead and take himself out of the equation before someone else can. He has it in his head that instilling this mentality in Howie is the only way he can protect him.
The arguments that arise from this tension work on a character level because they come from a sense of care, no matter how misguided. They work on a cinematic level because they represent the two competing halves of the film – one character refusing to give up on the idea of romance no matter how hopeless it seems, and one trying too hard to convince the other that romance doesn’t matter, while it inevitably sneaks up on him.
While Yang and Booster are the film’s highlight, they’re surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Torian Miller, Matt Rogers, and Tomás Matos round out the Bennet sisters, bringing with them one-liners you won’t soon forget and impeccable comedic timing – seriously, there’s a scene involving a game of Head’s Up that made me spit out my drink. James Scully is bashfully delightful as Charlie, Howie’s love interest, and Conrad Ricamora as Will – our Mr. Darcy – steals nearly every scene he’s in with a stealthy confidence. Ricamora is a worthy entry into the Darcy canon, bringing a stiffness to his performance that slowly melts away as he spends more time around Noah, softening into charmed befuddlement before morphing into straight up love. If there was an award for looking lovingly exasperated, he would win.
Without spoiling too much – although if you haven’t read or seen “Pride and Prejudice” at this point, I’m not sure what to say to you – “Fire Island” eventually lands on the side of the romantics, the sun setting on the anxiety-inducing question of whether that rom-com type of love exists. Because on Fire Island, rom-coms aren’t just for the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryans of the world. They’re for everyone.