GLEN WELDON, HOST:
The new rom-com "Fire Island" puts a queer spin on Jane Austen's "Pride And Prejudice," replacing the bustles and fancy balls with Speedos and tea dances. Comedian Joel Kim Booster wrote the script and also stars in the film as a queer Asian man who lives for the one week every summer when he and his friends decamp to the fabulous gay resort near Long Island. But he and his best friend, played by Bowen Yang, are outsiders among the cliquish community of white, wealthy gay privilege. And when love - or something like it - comes along, it places their friendship in jeopardy. I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "Fire Island" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me today is NPR producer Mallory Yu.
MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Hey, Glen.
WELDON: Also joining us is frequent NPR contributor and culture writer Bilal Qureshi. Hey, Bilal.
BILAL QURESHI: Hey there. Nice to talk to you again.
WELDON: Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Also rounding out the panel, this all-queer Pride panel, is Margaret H. Willison. She is one-half of the Two Bossy Dames newsletter and one-third of the "Appointment Television" podcast. Hey, Margaret.
MARGARET H WILLISON: Hey, Glen. I'm so glad you guys have me here.
WELDON: Of course. Who else? In "Fire Island," Joel Kim Booster stars as Noah, a nurse who gathers his friend for one week every summer at the Fire Island home - the beautiful Fire Island home - of Erin, played by Margaret Cho. Bowen Yang plays his best friend, Howie. He recently moved across the country. So Noah is looking to reconnect with him and with other friends, played by Matt Rogers, Tomas Matos and Torian Miller. None of them are wealthy. And together they represent the kind of gays that are historically shunned by the most toxic corners of the white masc gay community on and off Fire Island - fats, femmes and Asians.
But then Howie finds a friendly, attractive doctor, Charlie, played by James Scully, among one group of sneering, insufferable Bradens and Coopers. It doesn't help that Charlie's grumpy friend Will, played by Conrad Ricamora, thinks Noah and his friends are taking advantage of Charlie's openhearted nature. There's jealousy, resentment, drugs, hookups, casual bigotry and a lot of very good jokes. "Fire Island" was written by Booster. It features an entirely queer main cast and was directed by queer, Asian American director Andrew Ahn. It is now streaming on Hulu.
So, Mallory, let's start with you. What'd you think?
YU: I was thoroughly charmed by this movie. Like, aside from how it's a visual feast of aesthetically sweaty, muscled bods, it's raunchy. It's fun. It's surprisingly lovely. I am kind of a sucker for modern adaptations of classics because I grew up on stuff like "She's The Man," "She's All That," "10 Things I Hate About "You." But, you know, they do tend to be kind of teen college movies, which makes sense because everything is dramatic when you're a teen, right?
I will say it was refreshing to see "Pride And Prejudice" adapted into a specifically adult gay movie, where it makes sense that the drama is heightened and there are all kinds of racial and class dynamics happening. I think it dragged a little in the beginning and, at times, in the middle for me, but I was hooting and hollering through 90% of the movie. I've also decided that I want to be Margaret Cho's character, Erin, when I grow up, because, you know, living in a beautiful home, tattooed and beloved by beautiful young gay men - like, come on; give me that life.
WELDON: All right, Bilal. What'd you think?
QURESHI: I agree with Mallory. I also really enjoyed it. It's a really fun film. And as I think Mallory, you said, it looks really great. It's very lush - well-made movie. The light is amazing. It has a sense that money has been spent on it, which is also really nice to see because this is, I think, a film that originally was going to be on Quibi, and then it was going to...
QURESHI: I would say that the other thing that I was struck by is it's great, obviously so funny and so young. But also, it has kind of some, I think, drama in its screenplay as well and some, I think, sadnesses and kind of regrets.
QURESHI: And I think that wistful quality in it wrapped in the sort of - you know, the parties and the Speeds and all of that was great. I think the thing that I also think is most amazing and exciting about it, which is stating the obvious, is the group that's going to Fire Island in this film and the gays, gays, gays that they bring on to this island...
QURESHI: ...And the specific way that they - I mean, I've always wanted to say that - but they sort of are able to, I think, problematize this place that I have never been to and I'm also a little scared of. So I feel like this seems like the kind of critical look at it that I think is also really welcome in the new kind of era that we live in. And they are down to make fun of the rich, you know, snobs of Fire Island, which is also very Jane Austen.
QURESHI: So it's great. I really enjoyed it.
WELDON: Great to hear. Now, Margaret, you are the wild card here. You are our resident Austenite (ph). And I've never known you to police Austen adaptations based on the fact that they're happening. But you have policed them based on how good they are. How good is this?
WILLISON: Well, so this is what I would say, is that this movie engages me with two, like, very different hats. There's my, like, I like rom-coms as a genre hat. Now, as someone who's literally leading a "Pride And Prejudice" pilgrimage in three weeks...
WILLISON: ...Not everything can be Emma Thompson in "Sense And Sensibility," which...
WILLISON: ...I would argue - better than the book.
WILLISON: This, however - it has both strengths that I think the original text doesn't have and one weakness, which does undermine, for me, a little its success as a love story. And that is Austen has a superpower that Joel wants to claim for himself but can't claim from the position he places himself in. And that is, as I promised you, Glen, free indirect discourse.
WILLISON: So that's, like, a...
WELDON: Settle in.
WILLISON: ...Very fancy literary term. But, like pornography, I know it when I see it. And in Austen, it is that opening line, right? It is, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. So that line is attributed to no one. It's not a character that's saying it. It is just the author's voice, like God, floating in and jumping to every character's head as she wishes to and embody their perspective. So that gives her this space where she can be both sort of authentically advancing a love story and kind of ironically removed from all of it and commenting on the character's foibles. And when you try to do both of those things at once, they end up sort of at war with each other. And so Joel puts himself in the position of being both Lizzie and Jane - meaning Austen, as opposed to Jane Bennet. And by doing that, he wants to have his acidity, and he also wants to have his sweetness. And I think you have to separate the sources of those a little bit more. And so what I'm putting forth is Alan Cumming as a British narrator.
WELDON: That's interesting because I do have some thoughts about the use of voiceover in this movie, and I want to get - I want to hear from the other folks about that. But here's my initial take on the movie. We're doing this in a post-"Heartstopper" universe. It's great that there's queer YA content nowadays so that queer kids can see themselves and feel that their experiences are shared and valid and worthy, first love, coming to terms with yourself. But, you know, what's good besides queer YA content is queer A content where sex isn't this theoretical construct. It's not, you know, scary, uncharted waters. It's waters you know very well (laughter) - perhaps too well. Perhaps they're not as clean as you want them to be, but they're very familiar waters that need to be - that still need to be navigated because the queer lived experience is the navigation of desire and identity and the expectations of society - both, you know, society writ large and also of the queer community, which imposes all kinds of expectations and judgments. If the straights only knew; they have no clue.
And emotionally, at least, it's a lot scarier and more efficient, more toxically efficient, I think, when the calls are coming from inside the house. And art that speaks to that is saying something that is real and that offers to adult queer audiences something equivalent of what "Heartstopper" offers to young queer audiences, something that speaks directly to them. That's what this movie, which I also love, so this is a boring episode - 10, 10, 10s across the board - I find this movie very smart. I find it very sexy.
And the fact that it's built on the bones of "Pride And Prejudice" means, A, that an insufferable person like me can keep turning to our husbands and go, that's Mr. Bingley, oh, that's Mr. Darcy. But it also means that the cliques that the queer community forms and so ruthlessly polices around things like wealth and race and perceived masculinity and hotness and body fat percentage - those things can get unpacked in a way - because of who it's coming from, in a way that doesn't feel like a TED Talk. This is a movie that begins with a reference to Wendy Williams' "Peppa Pig" appreciation and that also includes a very good joke about someone mistaking Marisa Tomei for Laura Dern.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")
TOMAS MATOS AND MATT ROGERS: (As Keegan and Luke) My biological clock is ticking like this, and the way this case is going, I ain't never getting married.
MATT ROGERS: (As Luke) The deer with the little girl - bam.
TOMAS MATOS: (As Keegan) Come on.
CONRAD RICAMORA: (As Will) Rosie Perez.
MATOS: (As Keegan) Oh, my God.
ROGERS: (As Luke) I almost respect you for saying her name.
MATOS: (As Keegan) Bitch, who is this?
ROGERS: (As Luke) "In The Bedroom" nominee.
RICAMORA: (As Will) Laura Dern.
ROGERS: (As Luke) Oh, yeah, we get it. You're gay.
WELDON: And also not for nothing, there's a scene in this movie with two incredibly hot gay guys having an informed discussion over the works of Alice Monroe. Now, look...
WELDON: ...It's a fantasy, and I get that...
WILLISON: But it's your fantasy, and that's important.
WELDON: I didn't just feel seen, Margaret. I didn't just feel catered to. I felt targeted by that. I felt like someone has been reading my nifty gay stories, and I don't know how to feel about that. Let's talk about the use of voiceover, though. It is fraught, right? We've talked about it many times on this show. It's so easy to get wrong because it can be something that an unsure creator uses to fill gaps in plot or characterizations to underline things that hasn't been dramatized or - in adaptation, this happens a hell of a lot where you'd have some excuse to put some pretty language from the source material in. Mallory, what did you think of the use of voiceover? Do you agree with Margaret about the - it needed to be a little bit more acid?
YU: I don't know if it needed to be more acid. Because this movie is so targeted, catered to, written by queer people, the voiceovers for me helped signpost some of the in-jokes that a straight person or only queer-adjacent person might not understand. But I did struggle with Noah's character, and it wasn't until Margaret really talked about why that it clicked for me. I do think that he needs a little bit of separation. It feels like, you know, there are certain lines about how Noah always seems to have the answers or he always has something to say. He always has, like, a rebuttal or another line, but he can't be separate from this story. And the narrator voice, like Margaret says, feels very separate. It wasn't maybe as successful as I wish it were, but I don't know if it was bad necessarily.
QURESHI: You know, it's interesting to be talking about the Austen reference, too, because I felt like while I wanted to recognize all these signposts throughout, eventually I stopped paying as much attention to how good of an adaptation it was 'cause it's sort of - I mean, just a little bit differently, I suppose, as someone who's not going on a Austen tour so soon. But I will say, I thought the references to me that were more explicit were to "Clueless," actually, which struck me as an interesting kind of throughline with - you know, there was a reference to, like, that was way harsh, Tai, which is of course classic. And I think the narration to me in the beginning sounded very much like Cher's narration setting up the sort of world and the school and the cliques and the caste system.
And I think the movie for me where - you know, its heart is in the right place, such a great burst of summer kind of warmth and energy, but I felt like - I mean, this is a huge critique. Sorry, this is kind of connected to the voiceover because the voiceover is sort of saying, hey, this is a very castest, classist, racist, white, rich world, and we're, you know, Asians and people of color and we're inclusive and we're body positive. And then I also felt like at times the film undermined itself by actually participating in exactly that, too, which for me is, like, one thing about it that sort of was - I guess that's the point of all the ambiguity and the complexity 'cause it's very sexy while making that point. And in a way, it doesn't, I think, ultimately go as far with its critique of capitalism, of racism, as it sort of sets out that it's going to do in the narration. So there, too, was a disconnect for me. I also have to say my other critique is that actually Margaret Cho could have narrated it, frankly, from my...
WILLISON: Yes, that would've been amazing.
QURESHI: And I felt like she was actually underused, as a person who's a super fan...
YU: Strong agree.
QURESHI: ...Of hers. And so anyway, that's my conundrum that I find myself in. That's all.
WILLISON: Your casting suggestion is perfect. I think Margaret Cho is much better than Alan Cumming. You've improved it. Here, what's great is that - the orientation to your point-of-view characters. Where in "Pride And Prejudice" you're supposed to find all of the characters who aren't Jane and Lizzie deeply embarrassing, and you're supposed to hope they get sort of lifted out of that space, here, the opposite is happening. You are meant to think less of everyone who dislikes their square, fat, Black friend who does not know how to do drugs or have fun - right? - or their, like, two, like, tramps who I would die for 'cause they're perfect. Like, liking those characters and being among those characters is something he's supposed to remain at the end of the story rather than something he's supposed to rise above. And I think that's great, but I think, basically, the story needed to embrace that change more fully and somehow manage to reflect it more completely in the fantasy it presents at its end, rather than staying in this sort of toxic Austenian ambiguity, where it's like, well, snobs are terrible, but maybe they wouldn't be if they were just right.
WELDON: Two things I'll say. One is, it is a truth universally acknowledged that if you have Margaret Cho in your movie, you do not have enough Margaret Cho in your movie.
QURESHI: Right. Exactly.
WELDON: The other thing is, I think this tension we're talking about, about the way the film embraces this white masc male whatever - body type - let's just talk of body type, the way it embraces that and tries to reject that. The second time I saw this movie, a scene between Noah and Howie in which Noah jerkily mentions that he did some self-work, which means he got buff, and in that same scene, Howie is kind of looking at him with a pained expression, saying, we're not the same. That scene is doing a lot of work in the film, maybe not as much as it could. But I think...
WELDON: ...That is an attempt to directly address that tension because, again, in some ways, this film is a love letter to Fire Island. And, Bilal, let me go back to you because you said, in some ways, you're fearful of...
QURESHI: I mean, not like that. I'm not actually, like, horror-movie scared, but the myth of it.
WELDON: No. But I share exactly that. So talk to me about that. Did this work as a love letter to the place?
QURESHI: Well, I would just say that, I mean, instead of getting into all of my, you know, insecurities and anxieties growing up around Fire Island, I can just say that - I will say the Bowen Yang performance of Howie in this film is something that there should be a lot written about, a lot of celebration of, especially 'cause I think maybe people who see him in the trailer and come to this movie - it's really a departure in a way.
QURESHI: This is a very sensitive, thoughtful and - you know, person who's really struggling with self - you know, like, who they are and where they fit into this world. And I think it's a dramatic performance in a way. And I actually was really moved by it. And I thought that was the thing that's really inviting and welcoming - as you said, Glen - that there's a place for everyone in this, you know, wonderful home that Margaret Cho, as a mother, has created for these orphans of Fire Island, I suppose.
And if that was the home I was invited to, I'd be also super excited to go. I think that did a lot of work, actually, in this film to address some of those anxieties and the class system within the gay community. And I think that's where I actually thought it was really smart. And I think Bowen Yang does a lot of work in his performance to demonstrate that because in a way, yeah, he's the heart of the film, for me at least.
YU: Going back to the idea of, like, body type, I thought it did a really good job of critiquing, like, hookup culture, not necessarily the hooking up, but the no fats, no femmes, no Asians part of gay hookup culture.
YU: You know, it's critiquing whiteness and emphasis on beautifully cut, perfectly tanned, hairless gym-rat bodies. I liked the way that the, sort of, racism came out in this movie. It's not like, you're a slur. It's the sarcastic, can I help you? Or, oh, you're - like...
YU: ...You're the cute friends we just made, or, like, the way that one gay man in this remarks, like, wait, you're really into an Asian? What? As if that's such a surprise. I thought it did a really good job of working those interactions and the intra-community eye-rolling that happens when those interactions happen. But I also wish that it had gone farther. Like we were talking about, Bowen Yang's character does address some of these body image issues. And he and Noah talk around it all the time. You know, their friend Max, played by Torian Miller, is bigger. And he doesn't have muscles and abs. And he doesn't do drugs. And he's not, you know, a crazy partier. But he does mention that he is also having a fun, debauched weekend himself. I just wish that that fun debauchery, for him specifically, hadn't been all off camera.
YU: I think it could have helped underscore the point that this movie is trying to make if, you know, I had seen Max flirting with a dude who's just as into petting him and his arms...
YU: ...As all the other dudes are into petting Dex, say, like, the hot Wickham character.
WELDON: Yeah. Now, Margaret, you're a Massachusetts girl.
WILLISON: I am.
WELDON: Are we going to get into a P-Town-Fire Island beef here? What's going to happen here?
WILLISON: I've never been to Fire Island, so I can't speak to it. I have been to P-Town. I love going there. But even as a queer woman, it's not hostile to my presence, but it's not designed for me.
WILLISON: Basically, like, I think everyone deserves a space where they get to feel like their community and their values are the default, even when those communities and values expressed as fully as they get to be in those spaces can be really alienating for anybody even a little bit removed from it. And the question is just like, well, what are you putting at the center of that target, right? What is the heart of your community that you're expressing there?
And, Mallory, that's why I think your point is, like, so strong - right? - because clearly the movie is putting forward, this is a universe where, like, you can be held back, you can encounter prejudice, but you can also encounter just, like, an incredible time, even if you are very smart but kind of a bummer, right? Like, you can still bone down. And I would love to, sort of, see a slightly more skewed center of that community target, one that is showing how the queer community has, I think, grown on those acceptance points - right? - or complicated some of the prejudices that define it previously rather than one that is spending so much time with just, like, really mean, prejudiced, crappy people who, like, you just don't understand. Like, why do these nice characters who we're excited to see end up with our protagonists? Why do they have these terrible friends?
YU: Like, it makes more sense for Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy to have, you know...
WILLISON: Terrible sisters.
YU: ...Horrible sisters, right - Caroline Bingley. But it doesn't really make sense for Charlie or Will to be friends with Cooper and Braden.
WILLISON: It's plausible. There just isn't enough in the film to, like, address that.
QURESHI: I just wanted to say that I think for me, I personally resolved a lot of the tensions I felt with the film around the fact that it's a very mainstream film, too. I just want to bring up that this seems to me, like, as someone who's watched a lot of, you know, gay cinema growing up - and there have been other things that have addressed these kinds of things but have never been delivered in this kind of a way and that's going to be on Hulu for everyone to see. It's super-zeitgeisty (ph). It hits the culture in just the right time. It's part of Pride. Like, everyone is proud now also in a way that they didn't used to be, you know, just a few years ago.
So I think in that regard, I felt like this was a film that has some of these tensions and internal discussions that are maybe going on in the community. But it's also one that is expensive, big, you know, for anyone to watch because a lot of the references are now part of mainstream - everyone's culture now, in a way. And I think for me, I wasn't ultimately thinking this would be the go-to, like, critical look at race and class on Fire Island.
QURESHI: And that's totally fine. And I think that...
QURESHI: ...Indie film is somewhere to come to Sundance Channel soon, I'm sure.
WELDON: Well, as you can tell, we all dug this film. Tell us what you think about "Fire Island." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us at @PCHH. Up next, What's Making Us Happy This Week.
Now it is time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, What Is Making Us Happy This Week. Mallory, what is making you happy this week?
YU: Lizzo's new song "About Damn Time." Everything about the song just makes me smile, like, from the opening bassline to the way she says, it's bad bitch o'clock; it's thick-30. Like, there's one particular section that's become a trending sound, dance on TikTok. So I hear it all the time, and it's stuck in my head constantly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABOUT DAMN TIME")
LIZZO: (Singing) In a minute, I'ma (ph) need a sentimental man or woman to pump me up - feeling fussy, walking in my Balenciussies (ph), trying to bring out the fabulous.
YU: So the fact that the song is getting me to dance is remarkable. Lizzo has a tutorial that's really fun, and she will teach you, but she'll also be kind of mean about it.
WELDON: That's fantastic. Thank you very much, Mallory. Bilal, I'd love if your What's Making Me Happy was a TikTok dance. I doubt it is, but I'd love for it to be.
QURESHI: It could be. And actually, I want to add to Mallory's summer playlist. My What's Happy is not maybe yet a TikTok dance. I have - I don't have TikTok. I'm so old. It's Burna Boy, who I'm a big fan of, and his new song, "Last Last," which just came out. You know, this movie is a perfect summer movie. This song, for me, is the perfect summer song for me. And I'm really enjoying it, so I would really recommend it. He performed at the Billboard Music Awards recently, and I can't wait for his new album. Burna Boy's "Last Last" is my happy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LAST")
BURNA BOY: (Singing) I need Igbo and shayo, shayo, shayo, shayo, shayo, shayo. I dey Port Harcourt when dem kill Soboma. I dey try to buy motor, one Toyota Corolla. My feelings been dey swing like jangolova, feelings been dey swing like jangolova.
WELDON: All right, Margaret, what is making you happy this week?
WILLISON: I mean, we are three for three. We're all recommending songs, and we're all recommending songs with specific summer vibes.
QURESHI: "Fire Island" playlist.
WILLISON: Right now it's a great time to be dating and out in the world, which means it's an even better time to break up with your bummer boyfriend, and I have an anthem for you. The song is "Devastatingly Mediocre" by Deanna Petcoff. She talks about being in love with a man who's so devastatingly mediocre. And I just think that, like, this is the anthem you need to be singing along to with your friends in your car once you've left the devastatingly mediocre partner - I'll leave the gender up to you - behind and are experiencing the full freedom of a, like, fun, flirty, summer vibe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEVASTATINGLY MEDIOCRE")
DEANNA PETCOFF: (Singing) And why do I waste my life on a boy that's so devastatingly mediocre, devastatingly mediocre?
WELDON: Thank you very much, Margaret. My happy is not a song, but it is a kind of a collection of songs. My happy is also related to our subject today. The podcast "Las Culturistras," which we've had several guests, including me, talk about on the show a lot - it's hosted by two co-stars of "Fire Island," Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers. Recently, they issued a series of three episodes called "The 300 Songs Of The Great Global Songbook" Parts I, II and III, where they simply name and rank the best songs of all time, counting down from 300. It takes them over five hours to do, all told. And it is pure chaos energy. The temerity on display here, the gall, the blithe disregard for logic and the song quality, the completely insane songs that appear on this list, the fact that Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" is ranked 297...
WELDON: It is hilarious. It is wildly unpredictable, to say the very least. And they are just pure chaos agents, and it's a great listen. That is "The 300 Songs Of The Great Global Songbook" Parts I, II and III on the podcast "Las Culturistas." And that is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And that brings us to the end of our show. Mallory Yu, Bilal Qureshi, Margaret H. Willison, thank you all for being here.
YU: Well, thanks for having us.
QURESHI: Thank you for having us.
WILLISON: Thanks for having us, Glen.
WELDON: Happy Pride, guys. This episode was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you may or may not be bobbing your head to right now. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we will see you all next week.
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