Nearly 30 years ago, director Amy Heckering transported audiences into the world of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma through the lens of 1990s Beverly Hills high school with Clueless.
The bright, quirky satire provided a clever twist on what might be viewed as stuffy literature and made Austen more accessible for younger audiences.
Comedian Joel Kim Booster found inspiration in another Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice, for his feature film debut Fire Island, writing the screenplay and starring as Noah, loosely based on the Elizabeth Bennett character from the original novel.
The Searchlight produced film from director Andrew Ahn debuted on Hulu this past weekend and follows a group of five late-20s/early-30s gay men as they travel to a resort outside New York City for a week filled with debauchery, hookups, and relaxation. Noah has vowed to remain celibate until he can find someone for his best friend Howie, while the larger group laments the fact that this may be their last trip to the island.
Booster is a solid lead actor with a performance that’s easily likable and allows audiences to relate to Noah’s plight, but there’s nothing exceptionally notable about his work apart from the terrific chemistry he has with Saturday Night Live standout Bowen Yang. Clearly, the film works best when these two actors are able to banter and feed off each other’s energy in a friendship that goes well beyond the movie itself.
Yang is the best thing about Fire Island, offering a complex, emotional turn as Noah’s best friend Howie. It’s a performance that immediately draws sympathy while maintaining a good humor and the way Yang can emote naturally without it feeling forced or fake is a welcome quality for SNL alums in their film work.
Veteran comedienne Margaret Cho grounds the craziness of events with a largely calming, yet funny presence as the group’s maternal figure who owns the house the boys all stay at every year.
The breakout star of Fire Island is former Fredericksburg Theater Company actor Zane Phillips, who makes his feature film debut as Dex, a somewhat sympathetic island attendee with secrets that make him both mysterious and controversial. Phillips plays the role with an inherent kindness that slowly melts away as Dex’s true character is revealed.
Ironically, his supporting performance is better than either of the intended love interests, Conrad Ricamora’s Will or James Scully’s Charlie, who lack the sort of effortless chemistry that Booster and Yang showcase as longtime friends.
There are some obscure jokes that will only make sense for those familiar with the Keira Knightley-led film adaptation of the novel or this film’s wayward start as a comedy series for now defunct streamer Quibi.
By in large, the jokes almost always land for a chuckle but rarely rise to the level of hearty belly laugh. This is mostly due to the even keel tone in both Booster’s script and Ahn’s direction that maintains a lighter tone during more serious moments but limits the ability to create large moments of gut-busting laughter required of a theatrically released comedy.
Fire Island is considerably more explicit, even by romantic comedy standards, than films like Clueless or even crude Judd Apatow-produced features like Superbad have been as the R-rated flick skips a theatrical release and heads straight to Hulu.
Ahn’s film is exceptionally sex positive and open about the number of casual encounters and hookups that occur on the island, being clear and direct to showcase homosexual relationships visually in the same way a director might focus on heterosexual lovemaking. This could easily dissuade more conservative viewers from enjoying the larger film, but for the most part, the sexuality is secondary to the larger story and Ahn never makes a performance out of sex for show, only to further the plot.
While the film may sail over the heads of some casual viewers or put off conservative audiences, Fire Island has a commitment to the notion of found family and genuine entertainment that other viewers might find worth taking a chance on thanks to its easy access as a Hulu original.