It’s Raining Gay Asian Men

‘Fire Island,’ a quippy, queer adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is versatile. You can adapt her to a Beverly Hills high school (Clueless), 21st-century India (Bride and Prejudice), or, in the case of Hulu’s Fire Island, a gay Mecca. The social hierarchies her novels depict map all too easily onto a thirty-two-mile sandspit off the coast of Long Island where houses sell for upwards of $2 million.

Members of the lower classes—such as Noah, a nurse; Howie, who works at a startup; and their circle of “sisters”—have no prayer of owning. Fortuitously, they know Erin (Margaret Cho, seemingly unaged since her early-2000s standup specials), a gregarious lesbian who bought a house on the island after suing a restaurant several years ago. Spending a week together there has become a summer tradition, though this year, because Erin has squandered her winnings and needs to sell, is likely their last.

Naturally, they want to make it count—so bring on the debauchery. Noah takes it upon himself to ensure his bestie, the homely Howie, has sex before him. Opportunity beckons at “tea dance”—an afternoon ritual of boozing and socializing outside a dock-adjacent bar—when a cutie makes eyes at him. Noah dutifully forces a meeting, which fans the spark between Howie and his admirer, Charlie, who then invites Howie and company to a party at his house.

So begins a rom-com wherein the romance vies with the comedy, much of which targets the island milieu’s foibles and meanness. Charlie’s “house,” our plebian sisters discover, is a beachfront mansion populated by wealthy, mostly white Adonises who look askance at these mostly nonwhite, unmuscular interlopers. In fairness, the leeriness turns out not to be entirely unjustified; one of Noah and Howie’s friends douses another—as well as the occupants of a nearby a hot tub—with a bottle of liquor before puking into a vase. Less warranted, though, is what Noah overhears Charlie’s friend Will say about him: “he’s not hot enough to be that annoying.”

Fire Island works best in this clear-eyed, quippy mode (the comedian Joel Kim Booster, who also plays Noah, wrote the screenplay); the forays into sentiment don’t fare as well. Charlie seems less a person than a fantasy conjured by Howie: he’s young, he’s handsome, he’s kindhearted, and he’s even a goddamn pediatrician. He’s also the Charles (get it?) Bingley to Howie’s Jane Bennet, and that correspondence, more than anything else, seems to explain his actions. What explains the serially caustic Noah telling Howie, “All I want is for you to be happy” without a trace of self-consciousness remains a mystery. (Bowen Yang, for his part, plays Howie with such sensitivity that he not only delivers all his lines convincingly but evokes pathos as a self-doubting thirty-year-old who’s never had a boyfriend.)

The Noah-Elizabeth and Will-Darcy pairing comes off better. Their connection, which evolves from hostility to friendship to romance, feels organic, as do the complexities of their identities. Where Charlie and Howie seem a didactic mismatch—rich and Fire Island-poor, hot and not, white and Asian-American—Booster and the director, Andrew Ahn, complicate the dynamics between the Asian-American Will and Noah, whose toned physique is more typical of Charlie’s hyper-white set than of his own friends.

These two couples embody Fire Island’s dichotmous view of the queer community. Is it ultimately a hotbed of bitchy factions or a rainbow bubble where love wins? The movie’s answer seems to be that love wins despite the bitchy factions—a moral that, even if Austen might have phrased it differently, she’d nonetheless agree with.

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Dan Stahl

Dan Stahl is a writer, editor, and dessert enthusiast. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, NBC News, Backstage, Medium, and other publications.

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