High concept meets indie aesthetic, to fascinating results.
Writer-director Lynn Shelton takes a boozy, late night query – What if a pair of male, heterosexual best friends agreed to have sex on film for an amateur porn contest? – and turns it into a thoughtful, revealing and challenging consideration of what it means to be a friend, a husband, a lover and a (straight) man.
Mark Duplass plays Ben, whose marriage to Anna (Alycia Delmore) has become so cozy and comfortable that they’re thinking about starting a family. Late one night, a close friend from Ben’s past named Andrew (Joshua Leonard) shows up looking for a place to crash. He brings little with him, except for a vagabond lifestyle that throws the increasingly settled Ben into an inner panic.
Clearly there are strains of Old Joy here, Kelly Reichardt’s mood piece of a few years earlier about male friends whose lives have taken different trajectories. Among the similarities between the films is the homosexual subtext – though in Humpday it’s right out there in the open. Attending a party with Andrew, Ben joins in a drunken conversation about an amateur porn contest. The discussion somehow leads to the suggestion that he and Andrew make a sex film together. Sober the next day, they still decide to go through with the project – and tracing the conflicting, confused reasons why are what the rest of the movie is about.
Humpday does have its weaknesses. A fuller picture would have been painted if Delmore had had more of a presence as Ben’s wife. A stronger performance would have gone a long way toward making the marriage itself more of a force in the narrative (though perhaps Shelton wasn’t interested in such a bourgeois concept).
The focus, rather, is on Duplass and Leonard, so that the picture is structured as a series of highly charged and naturally circuitous conversations between Ben and Andrew. Largely improvised, these scenes give us a real feel for their friendship, the insecurities it includes and the competition that results (especially in one of cinema’s most amusingly pathetic games of pickup basketball). By the time they get to the big moment – an extended scene full of awkwardness and hesitation – what was a silly joke has become a reality with tentacles of serious implications. I won’t give away whether or not they go through with making the movie, but I will say this: they certainly have a good talk.