Writer-director Lynn Shelton’s new movie, Humpday, has a simple setup: Just two straight dudes, makin’ gay porn. Hey, it’s an art project. Which of course only makes it that much more preposterous. And funny and honest and awkward and fun.
Ten years or so after they went to college together, Andrew (Joshua Leonard) is a bohemian drifter and Ben (Mark Duplass) owns a happy middle-class Seattle-area home. And now, to the dismay of Ben’s wife Anna (Alycia Delmore), a perfect little storm of impromptu reunion, wine, weed, and impending amateur porn festival has stirred up the man-boys’ aggro angst.
It begins with Ben and Anna in bed one night, adoring each other for admitting to each other that they’re each too tired for sex. That’s important because they’ve been hearing the tick of the biological clock, and officially have decided to want a child. And in a way they get one, when Andrew shows up unannounced at two in the morning.
Smilingly, the couple reels from the disruption. Anna hasn’t met Andrew until now, and she’s a good sport under such geniality-testing conditions. Ben quickly assumes the look of a possible poster boy for being careful what you wish for. The men take stock of each other’s stations in life with mutual envy, mild contempt, and fumbling desperation to absorb the cruel shock of having grown older and apart. “Dude, we’ve got different lives,” Andrew says, “but I respect the fuck out of you.”
Shelton invites us to take that for what it’s worth. As becomes clear the next day, Andrew is that guy who shows up out of nowhere and immediately gets himself invited to party at a cozy nest of communally inclined free lovers. Ben is the guy who tags along, un-tucking his button-down shirt and putting on a game face, while his wife waits for him at home with the usual Friday night pork chops. Have they freely chosen and fully committed to these roles, or just fallen into them and found themselves unable to get out? Will their friendship now require some transgressive sort of consummation just to keep it alive? Can they really go through with it?
In any case, it’s not long before the fateful game of chicken has been hatched. “It’s beyond gay,” Ben suggests of the proposed porn project. And he’s right. This wispy, sitcom-ish scenario has organically yielded something much richer than anyone might have expected.
Positioned as a middlebrow-hipster subversion of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, or a subtle counterforce to the blunt object that is Brüno, Shelton’s film could be so much crueler than it is; she has everything she needs for a withering satire of thirtysomething bromantic navel-gazing (after all, as aging beer bellies protrude, their navels do get easier to see). But she also has a conscience, and wisdom enough to explore not just the spectrum of male sexual proclivity, but the historically rather richer dramatic subject of male pride.
Most straight American men in their mid-thirties probably wouldn’t get themselves anywhere near Ben and Andrew’s situation, and some probably will protest, “This woman moviemaker doesn’t understand us at all!” But those protests will ring hollowly — sort of like Andrew’s insistence that so many of his adventures tend to be “aMAAAzing,” or the endearments Ben and Anna cram into their phone conversations, chirping, “Hey, baby,” and “Hey, sweetie,” even as their patience frays. Shelton sees through them all, but she doesn’t look down on them. The beauty of Humpday, and the reason it seems plausible almost in spite of itself, is its gameness for playing right in to all sorts of uncertainty. A few beats feel forced here and there, and the stakes sometimes succumb to what might be seen as a stubborn aesthetic preference for ambiguity, but the characters seem at once internally consistent and amenable to actual development.
It also helps that the actors are such savvy collaborators. Blair Witch survivor Leonard and Baghead co-creator Duplass both are veterans of other improv-intensive indie flicks, and newcomer Delmore brings a crucial combination of openness and sensibility to Anna, who proves to be the linchpin of Shelton’s simple setup. How reassuring to think that behind every pair of straight dudes makin’ gay porn there’s a pair of keen, collected, tolerant women.