This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival
Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” is a comedic “Revolutionary Road” for twenty-first century audiences. Shelton’s third feature evokes many of the underlying themes present in Richard Yates’ novel of suburban discontent. You wouldn’t guess that from the premise: Set in Seattle’s hip urban youth scene, the movie focuses on two straight buddies intent on fulfilling the unlikely goal of filming themselves having sex — with each other — for the town’s local porn festival. To these hilariously mixed up journeymen, violating their sexual dispositions offers an absurd, idyllic escape from their mundane existence. Thanks to crisp, believable performances from the two leads, Joshua Leonard and “The Puffy Chair” co-director Mark Duplass, Shelton assembles a ceaselessly entertaining dissection of heterosexual confusion.
Ben (Duplass) and Andrew (Leonard) abhor the idea of sleeping together, which paradoxically drives them to give it a shot. Naturally, the project runs into a fair share of technicalities. Ben enjoys a modest, comfortable life with his kindhearted wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore, delivering a wonderfully subtle counterpart to the male performers). The couple optimistically discuss the prospects of taking the next step and having a child, but their plans are abruptly interrupted when Andrew blazes into town late at night in need of a place to crash.
The carefree yin to Ben’s mellow yang, Andrew’s aimless lifestyle clashes with his friend’s settled ideals. He presents the amateur porn concept during a late night drinking session, which sets up a serious discussion about it the next day. While initially attracted to fornicating as an “art project,” they eventually turn it into a mutual challenge. Andrew, whose slapdash sex life involves trysts with an easygoing lesbian (Shelton), suggests that Ben’s “white picket fence” reality prevents him from exploring new experiences. Ben takes a combative stance, insisting Andrew’s Jack Kerouac routine has worn thin. Both men think the other won’t go through with it, and the challenge begins. Shelton stages the ideological duel in western terms, framing their eyes in close-up as each man vainly attempts to hide an obvious hesitation.
It’s one of several intriguing cinematic strategies employed throughout the film. Shelton’s production values — including crisp photography by Benjamin Kasulke — have dramatically increased from her last feature, “My Effortless Brilliance,” which possessed similarly hilarious personalities but suffered from a serious case of shaky cam. As a result, “Humpday” is far more accessible and revealing of Shelton’s directorial skill. The movie, which was entirely improvised around scenarios worked out between Shelton and her actors, aims for a kind of minimalist charm (in fact, the cast occasionally seems to have almost too much fun screwing around with the dialogue). While essentially story-driven, it allows for character eccentricities to inject the experience with an ever-present charm. Also, it refuses to overindulge in cheap vulgarities, unlike Kevin Smith’s inferior “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” As modern comedies go, “Humpday” has more in common with the breezily observant movies directed by Mark Duplass and his brother Jay. In “The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead” (and now “Humpday”), young, endearing individuals project such believable qualities that even highly absurd scenarios go down with ease.
As it happens, “Humpday” has an additional aspect of the real world embedded in its plot. Based around the actual Humpfest, hosted by Seattle alt-weekly staple The Stranger, the movie suggests a documentary project waiting to happen. Ben and Andrew both grapple with very natural obstacles, including obvious reservations from Ben’s wife, but the sexual politics emerge from the story without taking any sides. The men deal with predictable boundaries engendered by their unwavering straightness — as one would expect such people to do, no matter where the proper solution lies. The constant state of denial share by Ben and Andrew doesn’t last forever. “It’s beyond gay,” Ben joyfully predicts of their scheme. Ultimately, however, it’s beyond them.