Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reverend's Reviews: Hooray for Humpday!

What happens when two allegedly-straight, longtime male buddies make a pact to star in a gay porn movie together? That is the intriguing premise of the new comedy-drama Humpday, which got people talking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is slated for a limited theatrical release this Friday.

Mark Duplass — who is better known as co-writer and co-director (with his brother Jay) of The Puffy Chair and last year’s amusing Baghead — gives a nicely nuanced performance as Ben, a happily married man busily trying to conceive a child with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore, also very good).

Their seemingly idyllic life is challenged by the arrival of Ben’s college friend, Andrew (played by Joshua Leonard, one of the three aspiring filmmakers lost in the woods of The Blair Witch Project). Andrew has been backpacking around the world, but shows up unannounced on Ben’s doorstep at 2:00 AM. Anna is immediately suspicious of Andrew but makes an effort to make her husband’s BFF welcome.

The adventurous Andrew invites Ben to a party the next night. At the party, they learn of “Humpfest”, a local amateur porn contest. Inspired more by pot and alcohol than truly artistic intentions, Ben and Andrew agree to enter the contest. They will have sex with each other on camera and subsequently break tradition and taboos by being proud, straight men nonetheless having sex with each other out of mutual man-love.

Will they go through with it? If they do, will their friendship survive? Can Ben tell his wife about their plan, as he has assured Andrew he will? These are some of the burning questions Humpday poses that I won’t dare answer here.

I will reveal, however, that Humpday is more sophisticated than a brief plot synopsis indicates, and it is one of the most observant and intelligent movies ever about male relationships. Interestingly, the film is written and directed by a woman, Lynn Shelton. I’ve noticed over the years, however, that most of what are in my opinion the best movies about the joys and pains of male friendship are made by women, notably Doris Dorrie’s Men … and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.

During her film’s debut at Sundance, Shelton described the plot of Humpday to an LA Times reporter as “two dudes attempting to out-dude each other by attempting to do each other.” She explains her approach in a bit more detail in the film’s press notes: “I can’t say for sure how my womanhood affects my art but I can say that I’ve always been a close observer of the emotional life of people, and I’ve been particularly compelled and moved by characters who fervently want to connect with each other but who struggle deeply to do so.”

From a gay perspective, one of the most refreshing things about Humpday is that it doesn’t treat homosexuality as some kind of aberration. Andrew bemoans at one point, “I wish I were more gay” and in the midst of a should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-do-it debate between Ben and Andrew, Ben takes offense at Andrew’s assumption that a straight, married man would have more hesitation about having sex with another guy. “You don’t have to let me off the hook because of some preconception you have of me,” Ben protests.

Humpday’s largely-improvised finale may disappoint some viewers, may be a relief to others, and will likely feel just right to many. However audience members react, Humpday can help broaden the cultural dialogue about the value and challenges of intimate male-to-male friendships. It can also be regarded as an interesting companion piece to the more overt exploration of contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality that Sacha Baron Cohen uncovers in BrĂ¼no, which also opens this weekend. I encourage GLBT moviegoers to make it a double feature!

Click here to watch the trailer for Humpday.

UPDATE: Humpday is now available on DVDfrom

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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