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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Review: ‘Fire Island’ puts a raunch-com spin on Jane Austen

By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

Actor and screenwriter Joel Kim Booster gives Jane Austen a brisk, lighthearted refresh in “Fire Island,” a hedonistic – but disarmingly sincere – ode to the eponymous gay vacation spot. As the movie opens, Noah (Booster) is on his way to meet his friends for their annual pilgrimage to Fire Island, where untold sybaritic pleasures await.

He’s just left a hunky guy in bed, but, as he informs viewers in his voiceover, “He had boyfriend energy, and that’s just not me.” Noah is all about hookup culture, sexual exploration and giving the middle finger to the “monogamy industrial complex,” which, he quips later, “was invented by straight people to make us less interesting.”

The recipient of that piece of wisdom is his best friend Howie, a bespectacled romantic played with low-key sweetness by “Saturday Night Live” player Bowen Yang. Like any good Austen protagonist, Noah takes it upon himself to make sure Howie has a satisfying sexual encounter before their week on Fire Island has ended – meaning an assignation that is hot, naughty and emotionally shallow.

Howie reluctantly goes along with the plan, even though he harbors a deep-seated longing for love and commitment. Can this raunch-com be saved? The good news is that “Fire Island” doesn’t need saving. Snappily directed by Andrew Ahn (“Spa Night,” “Driveways”), this sunny summer romp checks just about every box when it comes to the pleasures of the genre.

From the jump, Booster-slash-Noah gives the audience a biting tutorial on millennial gay culture, affectionately referring to his posse using the F-word, then quickly adding, “Don’t cancel me,” noting that for his “sisters,” it’s a term of endearment. Through catty remarks, snappy comebacks and quippy one-liners, “Fire Island” provides a primer on the cultural norms of the gay community, including how “race, masculinity and abs” are a few of the metrics by which it sorts itself.

Noah, Howie and their friends are a decidedly down-market segment of the population, staying with their surrogate mother Erin (Margaret Cho) at her cozy cottage in the Pines and gazing longingly at the rich, handsome and physically fit specimens flexing their way through beloved seasonal rituals such as the Tea Dance and the Underwear Party.

Things heat up when Howie makes eye contact with Charlie (James Scully), who’s staying at a spectacular glass-walled mansion on the beach, and whose snobby friends look askance at the pushy, slightly tacky interlopers suddenly in their midst. An L.A. lawyer named Will (Conrad Ricamora) – channeling Mr. Darcy by way of Mr. Spock – is particularly chilly, his judgmental demeanor both attracting Noah and driving him to fits of petulant rage.

If the plot machinations sound familiar, where “Fire Island” is heading won’t be a mystery. But Booster and Ahn still manage to make the contrivances feel fresh, even if the tonal zags – praising promiscuity and Dionysian excess one minute only to turn earnestly sincere the next – occasionally don’t play well with each other.

Bowen and Booster develop an easygoing chemistry, and Ahn surrounds them with equally convincing supporting players: Matt Rogers, Tomas Matos, Torian Miller, Nick Adams and Zane Phillips deliver memorable turns as characters who seem familiar without ever being caricatures. The energy of “Fire Island” lies somewhere between “Sex and the City” and “Looking,” kept afloat by the eye candy of guys in Speedos, in-jokes about everything from Cherry Grove to Cherry Jones and a poppy soundtrack dominated by Charli XCX and Perfume Genius.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Howie and Noah’s journey will end with valuable life lessons about friendship, self-acceptance and belonging; genuinely amusing gags about Marisa Tomei, Alicia Vikander and heteronormativity are bonuses. As Noah observes, not every single man is necessarily in want of a wife – but figuring that out is more than half the fun.