Friday, July 24, 2009

A New Kind Of Bromance

It’s been a decade since Ben and Andrew were the bad boys of their college campus. Ben has settled down and found a job, wife, and home. Andrew took the alternate route as a vagabond artist, skipping the globe from Chiapas to Cambodia. When Andrew shows up, unannounced, on Ben’s doorstep, they easily fall back into their old dynamic of heterosexual one-upmanship. After a night of perfunctory carousing, the two find themselves locked in a mutual dare: to enter an amateur porn contest. But what kind of boundary-breaking porn can two dudes make? After the booze and “big talk” run out, only one idea remains—they will have sex together…on camera. It’s not gay; it’s beyond gay. It’s not porn; it’s an art project. But how will it work? And more importantly, who will tell Anna, Ben’s wife? "Humpday" is a buddy movie gone wild. Shelton expertly mines this clever construct for every possible comedic and irreverent moment in Humpday.

Lynn Shelton's highly-buzzed Humpday is a very good dissection of friendship, sexuality, ego, domesticity, and our perceptions about who we are and how far we are willing to go to prove that we are not so easily-defined. We are all labeled on a nearly daily basis – "Husband," "Single," "Straight," "Gay" – and most of those labels do a horrible job of telling the whole story. Humpday is about two old friends who have gone in very different directions since college. One wanders the world, choosing where he's going to go and who he's going to bed on the spur of the moment. The other has a nice house, loving wife, and is trying to start a family. For one, sex has become random and, for the other, it has become determined by ovulation schedules. But the wanderer wants to prove that he can commit to something and the husband wants to prove that he isn't the "Mr. Picket Fence" that his old friend thinks he has become. How? By banging each other. Humpday may not be the single best movie I've seen so far this year—though it's certainly a contender for the title—but it's without doubt the most surprising. To listen to a description of the plot (two straight male friends somehow psych each other into collaborating on a gay porn film starring themselves), you'd think you knew exactly what kind of movie this is. The pitch meeting is drearily easy to imagine: Zack and Miri Make a Porno would be invoked, as would I Love You, Man, with the proper name Jonah Hill and the adjective Apatovian thrown in there somewhere. But Humpday exists in a realm blessedly apart from the mass-produced homosocial comedies of recent years. It's not even a response to, or a critique of, the Hollywood "bromance." It's a brainy, sparkling riff on friendship, marriage, sexual identity, and art. As the movie opens, Ben (Mark Duplass), a Seattle-based transportation engineer, lies in bed with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). The two seem genuinely happy and in love, but there are the subtlest hints of marital ennui. Ben's wedding ring is just little too prominently foregrounded in the shot, and when the two agree that they're both too tired for sex, they're giddy with relief. As they're drifting off to sleep, the doorbell rings. It's Andrew (Joshua Leonard), Ben's best friend from college, a bohemian drifter who thinks nothing of showing up without calling at 2 a.m. Andrew beds down in the basement for a few days, his larger-than-life presence trying Anna's patience even as it puts Ben in touch with an earlier, edgier version of himself. Andrew drags Ben to a party hosted by a lesbian couple, where, after a few bong hits and glasses of wine, the conversation turns to Humpfest, an annual amateur porn-film festival hosted by the Seattle Stranger. (This event really exists, and you still have a few months to ready this year's submission.) Fueled by THC and sheer bravado, Ben and Andrew come up with a concept: They'll rent a hotel room, turn on a camera, and film themselves having sex. The resulting video will be "beyond gay," whatever that means, and for reasons that are never quite clear even to Ben and Andrew themselves, the experience of filming it will be both an act of creative expression and a character-building challenge.

As the clock ticks down toward Humpday, Ben and Andrew repeatedly talk themselves into and out of the project, tiptoeing all the while around the question of how to break the news to Anna. It's a talky movie, but the (partly improvised) talk is marvelously intricate and precise. Somehow the director, Lynn Shelton, manages to keep her high-concept premise afloat in a purely naturalistic setting. Ben's and Andrew's motives are at times comically self-serving and absurd, but their characters aren't set up as targets of satire. They're not clueless homophobes rigidly guarded against the possibility of real intimacy, nor are they the postmodern groovesters they'd like to believe they are. When the day of the big porn shoot finally arrives—I wouldn't dream of spoiling what happens physically between the two men, but I can say that it's accompanied by an epic, hilarious, and unpredictable conversation. Each hopes the other will back out of the idea, and they warily circle each other in the days and hours before the planned shoot. Ben, in particular, smarts against Andrew's condescension toward "the weird paradigm" in which he and Anna live. "You are not as Kerouac as you think you are," he tells Andrew in a moment of clarity, "and I'm not as white-picket-fence as you think I am." How do things work out? Well, I'm not going to tell you. Suffice to say that the talented Shelton gets honest, nuanced performances from her trio of actors; really, the most naked thing about the film is the way the cast bares the characters' souls. Their late-night conversations feel as natural as our own, with each pair within the trio (including a powerful scene between Anna and Andrew) creating their own intricate relationship. Though the film at times gets a little too talky, and the camerawork sometimes feels unnecessarily claustrophobic, Humpday surprises us from beginning to end. It's a fresh take on the familiar topic of friendship — and a wise one. A strong 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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