Movie Review: Jane Austen on “Fire Island?”

Imagine “Fire Island,” New York’s gay getaway, as a version of Jane Austen’s Bath in the early 19th century — a vacation town where all the right people mix and mingle, court, flirt and perhaps “couple.” That’s what writer and star Joel Kim Booster does for the latest among many films to use that title — and yes, there was even a TV series titled “Fire Island,” too.

Few locations are as evocative of what most everything set on “Fire Island” is about — gay love and the freedom to express it.

Booster plays Noah, sort of Jane Austen’s “Emma” transplanted to “Pride & Prejudice.” Noah is our narrator/guide to this mash-up of Austen themes and characters rendered in bitchy, banana-hammocked, molly-popping strokes on some gay friends’ “last week” at “the Gay Disney World,” as he describes it.

Plainly, Noah’s never visited Disney World in June.

Noah and four friends — Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomas Matos), Max (Torian Miller) and Howie (Bowen Yang of “Saturday Night Live”) — gather at the home of their doting lesbian mother figure (Margaret Cho, of course) every year for a reunion/get-away and landlocked “cruise.”

They’re just five gay men, on the make from the minute they board the ferry (Shirts OFF!), ready to brave the “meat rack” of parties, drag/karaoke bars, beaches and sunsets. Erin telling them she has to sell the house she’s long invited these “poor gays” to stay in adds pathos and urgency to their “last summer” together.

As Howie is 30 and “never had a boyfriend,” that becomes Noah/”Emma’s” mission — to get shy, sweet San Francisco Howie some action.

If we’re stealing from Austen, that means Noah will also meet someone. Some suitors — rich and/or handsome — will prove to be unworthy cads, others “rude” and “snobbish” but worthy of a reassessment.

You get the drift. It’s Austen with a lot of “Who’s the ‘bottom,’ here?” jokes.

Booster folds in little digs at gay prejudices — a hierarchy that declares “No fats, no femmes, no Asians” — and lip service about not wanting to “conform to this community’s toxic body standards.”

Yeah. Right. Like the shirtless scenes, short-shorts and cut-off Ts don’t show off a sea of sixpacks.

James Scully plays Charlie, the handsome pediatrician Noah sees checking out Howie, turning Noah’s mission into both hooking Howie up and protecting him if he senses a threat from Charlie and his fellow rich snobs.

“These are not OUR people. I was just talking to a guy who thinks Lindsay Graham was in ‘The Parent Trap!'”

“Lindsay Graham in ‘The Parent Trap?’ I’d TOTALLY watch that!”

Conrad Ricamora deftly plays the bookish, aloof stuff Will (Last name “Darcy,” perhaps?) who gets under Noah’s skin as he “protects” Charlie from the lower-class gays in Noah and Howie’s “house.”

It’s all cute enough, campy enough and bawdy enough to pass muster. But when you title your film “Fire Island” you’re not just going where other films and series have gone before. You’re so “on the nose” that nothing we see will surprise.

Paper the picture with voice-over narration that hits the Jane Austen thing right on the head, right from the start, and even more predictability is built in.

That lets us anticipate too much and makes the film’s 105 minutes pass more slowly than you’d like. It “drags,” and not in a fun way.

Even the soundtrack has a banal “Heard that coming a mile off” quality. A cover of Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” introduces us to the hedonistic wonderland of the island, and another cover — of Donna Summer’s gay anthem for “the club’s about to close” — ends it.

But stick around, because there’s a little mystery about what situations will be twisted into Austenesque tropes — “revenge porn,” movie star (cell phone) charades that entail reciting every line Marisa Tomei is famous for in “My Cousin Vinny,” and a dangerously uninhibited night set-off by everybody throwing all their drugs into a grab bag.

Ok, that’s NOT Austeneque. But it is funny enough, and that goes for the whole film

Yang, a stand-out in the current “Saturday Night Live” cast, plays a more toned-down character than any we’ve ever seen, which kind of misuses him. “Outrageous” is his brand. Booster makes a fine leading man, Ricamora is properly infuriating and others occasionally transcend the “types” they’re playing.

Cho is vintage Cho, loud and brash and unfiltered.

The gold standard of this sort of gay reunion romantic dramedy is still “Love! Valour! Compassion,” and Booster’s script only freshens up the situation with nudity, raw language, sex and drugs. The “camp” hasn’t changed in 25 years.

“Fire Island” manages to be just amusing enough to make one forget the other projects with the same title, even if it falls short of being the last word on the place, the scene and the sexual shorthand that title represents.

Rating: R for strong sexual content, language throughout, drug use and some nudity.

Cast: Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora, Matt Rogers, James Scully, Tomas Matos, Torian Miller, Nick Adams, Zane Phillips and Margaret Cho.

Credits: Directed by by Andrew Ahn, scripted by Joel Kim Booster. A Searchlight release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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