- Rated R
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All photos © Magnolia
Reviewed by Bob Westal
n 1934's “Manhattan Melodrama,” Clark Gable's virtuous gangster literally goes to the gallows for the sake of his friendship with William Powell's honest but sincerely conflicted politician, now the governor of the state. As Gable nobly refuses Powell's offer of a reprieve – he deserves his fate – and prepares to meet his end, they shake hands, a bit dewy-eyed. Thirty-four years later, Oscar (Walter Matthau) and Felix (Jack Lemmon) in “The Odd Couple” are pretty clearly in the throes of one hilariously complex love/hate relationship but, when their friendship is healed by the end of the film, even the briefest of hugs is not in the cards for the poker buddies.
Now, of course, we live in a very different male-bonding world. Yet, even as the hug becomes the new handshake for many, the question remains: what is the new hug? No wonder so many of us seem caught between a junior high school level fear of being thought gay and artsy post collegiate embarrassment that we're not cool enough to actually be, you know, a little bit gay. It's life in the post-Kinsey, post-ambisexual/glam David Bowie, post “Seinfeld” “not that there's anything wrong with that” world where, as proven by “Superbad,” the spectacle of straight males being physically affectionate is somehow funnier than ever.
“Humpday” takes that odd tension to its logical and very funny extreme. After boisterous, artsy traveling man Andrew (Joshua Leonard) makes an unannounced visit on his best college buddy, Ben (Mark Duplass), now preparing to conceive a baby with his loving wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), they both find soon themselves at an ultra-bohemian party with the artiste's latest hook-up, an easygoing bisexual (director Lynn Shelton) and her lesbian girlfriend (Trina Willard). As the evening wears on, discussion veers towards the real-life Seattle-based homemade art-porn event, “Hump!” More than a bit drunk and stoned, the supposedly domesticated Ben has a dubious inspiration: since just about every sex act known to man has been documented via porn, the only thing left is two straight men having sex. Somehow, this seems like an idea with real depth to it.
Ordinarily, this dubious conception would die a naturally quick death, but there are fissures in the friendship over Ben's unspoken fears of impending parenthood and the resulting commitment to “the white picket fence” life, and Andrew's lack of accomplishment. Because straight guys can make just about anything the source of macho posturing, the idea of creating a hardcore gay porn video together becomes, yes, a bone of contention as they essentially dare each other into going ahead with the loony idea. This has some alarming repercussions involving the initially ignorant Anna, whose wifely tolerance is tested well beyond the usual breaking point.
For a film in which all the dialogue was improvised, “Humpday” is so well structured and tightly edited that it feels almost as if it was all written down. Extra credit must therefore be given to the two lead actors and de facto co-writers for making this one of the funnier and more humane films to come down the pike in awhile. Best known as half of the filmmaking Duplass Brothers (“The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead”), Mark Duplass is entirely believable as the supposedly more stable of the two friends, whose calm, grounded exterior hides the fact that his fears are causing him to sow emotional chaos. Joshua Leonard is best known for his likable role in the 1999 horror sensation, “The Blair Witch Project,” in which he also improvised his own dialogue while also effectively being a camera operator and risking hypothermia. His skills have grown over the years and his kindhearted, not-so-free-spirited Andrew is a portrait in loneliness and shame concealed beneath a proudly bohemian exterior. It is very much the heart of the film.
Still, writer-director Lynn Shelton deserves the auteur's share of the credit for her careful plotting and thoughtful orchestration, and everyone involved is careful to acknowledge the work of editor Nat Sanders in constructing a tightly coherent film from hours upon hours of raw improvised footage. The result, in any case, is a highly entertaining comedy that can not only stand head to head with any recent film in the recently christened “bromance” genre, but which also has the freedom to be a bit more serious and thoughtful at times than studio bromantic offerings are generally allowed to be.
One final word. There's been some concern expressed that “Humpday” might be hampered commercially by a misperception that it's a “gay movie,” whatever that may mean. Without giving anything away, I can tell you it would not be a funny film if either character were remotely bisexual, let alone full-tilt queer. It is, however, a highly charitable movie towards humans of all sexual persuasions and that's a very good thing. I know there are guys out there who have an easy time watching human beings being tortured for 90 minutes, but who recoil at the sight of seeing two guys kissing for five seconds. All I can say is – it's time for some of us to grow up.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
This set from Magnolia includes an informative making-of featurette, some revealing deleted scenes, and two entirely worthwhile commentaries, one from stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard and another from director Lynn Shelton, actress Alycia Delmore, and several crew members. All in all, the DVD provides a very nice inside look at the riskiest and possibly the most demanding form of indie filmmaking. It’s definitely worth a look.