Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Review of Humpday

Bad title, good movie.

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

I'm sure people will go to writer/director Lynn Shelton's Humpday expecting titillation. Or it could be boredom. You see the words "gay porn" in the synopsis, and it looks like more risky business packaged in the aesthetic acceptability of independent, low-budget filmmaking. Nudity and sexual acts, presented under the guise of pushing boundaries, has become such familiar terrain that the independent film world sometimes feels like Las Vegas or spring break. OK, so someone got naked. Who cares?

And that is the master stroke of Shelton's movie, in which two straight college friends (Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard) decide to make a porno together: the sex isn't what hooks you. By dealing with feelings that a mainstream movie would parody or avoid, Humpday is more compelling than the latest art house treasure featuring a talented actor's genitals.

Ben and Anna (Alycia Delmore) are happily married or, at the very least, comfortable. Their bedtime attire is decidedly drab as is their pillow talk--when the movie opens, both laugh in relief when they admit they're too tired for sex. It's not as if the act would have been something out of Cinemax late night; the couple is firmly entrenched in making a baby. Regardless of their happiness, it's clear that complacency is here to stay.

Then Andrew (Leonard) knocks on their door. Ben's crazy college buddy is in the states to fund some vaguely defined art project, and figured Seattle was a good place to start. Anna is obliging and a little surprised, but Ben is thrilled to have him around. The guys start hanging out and it's clear that for Ben, Andrew is more than the return of a long-lost friend. The bearded hepcat signifies the return of fun--hanging out at weird people's houses, staying up late smoking weed--you know, the behavior that tends to stop when you land a mortgage and a steady job. This is not good terrain for Ben to reenter since he's married to a woman who wants to have his child. And that leads to the unfathomable position Ben and Andrew find themselves in, volunteering to have sex with each other for a film competition.

Shelton uses the pending porno to examine the machinations of macho behavior, which at its heart is competition, whether it's an awful basketball game or who will back out of this stupid sexual dare. (The fact that Shelton is female and that this message rings so true is a grand accomplishment.) The great fun of Humpday is that neither guy can back down, and it's funny to watch Duplass and Douglas justify their stupidity (it's artistic, right?), while revealing their reasons for going forward. Ben wants to prove that he's not just some suburban dullard. His life with Anna is great, but it's eating away at the man he was with Andrew. As for Andrew, doing the movie allows him to finally complete something after years of screwing up, but a botched sexual encounter with two ladies shows that Andrew is nowhere near ready for his project with Ben. These two guys are in the stupidest game of chicken, but neither can steer away. Pride is on the line.

But the game is different. The definition of being male has changed for both men, especially since Ben now has Anna to consider, who defines him as much as his suppressed id. Thank goodness that Shelton gives Anna a backbone, and Delmore has a field day, turning a character that could have been a killjoy into someone who surprises you with her depth and keen skepticism. Anna's greatest moment is mounting a late-arriving, hung-over Ben. She's ovulating and angry, so the least he can do is keep quiet.

That scene says it all. Humpday isn't about sex, as much as it is about how it defines us, shapes our views, and makes us act like morons. Shelton's refusal to play dumb or stir controversy in the easy, tired ways (e.g., Zack & Miri Make a Porno) makes her movie all the more daring and entertaining. As a result, something profound happens. [R]

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