Humpday (Review)

Lynn Shelton's hilarious film explores dude-on-dude sex

Aug 26, 2009 at 2:06 pm
click to enlarge Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard in Humpday
Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard in Humpday

Humpday is much more than its playful title might suggest. Writer/director Lynn Shelton’s lo-fi comedy touches on a plethora of weighty topics — sexual boundaries, artistic merit, identity, parenthood, gender and more — in a manner so funny and matter of fact that many viewers will feel as if they stumbled upon someone’s personal home movie. Think the improvisational chops and stunted adolescence of a Judd Apatow comedy and the ultra-low-budget aesthetic and buddy-movie thematic concerns of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.

Ben (Mark Duplass) is a thirtysomething with a seemingly ideal wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), and a sweet job as a transportation engineer in Seattle. One night, following a fumbled attempt at making the baby Anna so eagerly wants, Ben opens his front door to find Andrew (Joshua Leonard), his old college roommate.

Bearded, clad in a curious hat and buzzing with energy, Andrew immediately puts off the vibe of a guy who’s up for anything and everything, the antithesis to Ben’s burgeoning domesticity. An awkward tension ensues — they haven’t seen each other in a decade — before the two trade playful punches and reignite their old-school slang. Anna, who’s never met this mysterious blast from the past, is wary but intrigued by the guys’ bond; she sets up Andrew with a sleeping bag in the basement.

The duo’s unexpected reunion spurs each to assess his current station in life — Ben isn’t sure if he’s ready to be a dad, and Andrew, an artist (if only his own head), is yearning for something more after years of aimless, free-spirited exploration. Each looks at the other with a degree of envy.

A day after his arrival, Andrew meets a collection of bohemians who live in a house dubbed “Dionysus." Andrew invites Ben to join him at the house for dinner, and it’s not long before an alcohol- and weed-fueled conversation leads to talk of Hump Fest!, an annual amateur porn contest put together by Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger.

Andrew declares he’s going to make an “amazing erotic art film.” Ben laughs, saying that “a quick Google search” reveals that everything under the sexual sun has already been done. True artistry requires a degree of invention.

Drunk, high and emboldened by the bohemian atmosphere, the two bring up the idea of having sex with each other — two straight dudes boning is sure to yield “unique, beautiful art,” they say to the affirmation of everyone at the Dionysus house.

What started out as an off-handed lark turns into a full-blown case of one guy trying to out-dude the other.

“I’ll do it,” Ben insists.

“No, I’ll do you,” Andrew says.

They book a hotel room. It’s on ... for now.

“I understand if you want to back out,” a sober Andrew says to a hungover Ben the next day, which leads to another round of ego-fueled back-and-forth.

“You’re not as Kerouac as you think you are, and I’m not as white picket fence as you think I am,” Ben says, again insisting that he’ll go through with it.

They admit that it would make for a “weird but amazing” art project and agree to go through with the unlikely union. I won’t reveal the film’s climax but to say that it feels honest and hilariously awkward.

Duplass and Leonard — both of whom have backgrounds in collaboration-based, improvisation-heavy material — have an easy chemistry that grounds the film’s seemingly outrageous central conceit with a strange, organic authenticity.

Writer/director Shelton, who also co-stars and co-produces, presents the film’s long, dialogue-driven interludes with fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Its slice-of-life set-ups and naturalistic performances give the proceedings a spontaneous quality that has become the hallmark of the DIY movement known as Mumblecore, to which Humpday clearly belongs.

For the uninitiated, the loose collective features a rapidly growing number of young filmmakers who shoot with digital cameras, possess nonexistent budgets, mine their own lives for material and employ mostly unprofessional actors to examine the everyday issues of living at this particular moment in time. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of the DIY-bred, underground Indie Rock circuit.

While its roots can be traced back to John Cassavetes’ highly personal, early-’60s independent features — among other less obvious touchstones — the current movement rose to prominence on the heels of Andrew Buljaski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002). Set in a series of modest apartments and featuring mostly white twentysomethings dealing with post-college relationship ennui, Buljaski’s navel-gazing venture seemed to herald a rush of likeminded efforts, including but not limited to works by the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair and Baghead), Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA and Quiet City) and Joe Swanberg (LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs).

If there’s one theme that continually shows up in each of these efforts, it’s the increasingly self-conscious aspect of living in an age of information overload. We’re more aware of ideas and ways of living and other cultures than ever before. But this awareness has also yielded a deceiving, anxiety-inducing paradox — the more we know in general, the less we understand things on a deep, intimate level.

And it’s getting worse. Just ask Humpday’s Ben and Andrew, both of whom are hung up on who they think they should be — and others’ perception of them — rather than being satisfied with who they really are. Grade: B-plus

Opens Aug. 28. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.