At The Movies: Humpday (2009)

humpday2009

Humpday

★★★☆☆

2009 • 94 minutes • Magnolia Pictures

Humpday centers on two college buddies a decade after their youthful exploits. Ben (Mark Duplass) is a married man with a stable job and a nice house getting ready to conceive his first child with his beloved wife Anna (Alycia Delmore). Andrew (Joshua Leonard) is a vagabond artist who shows up at their doorstep in the middle of the night, in town to secure some funding for his latest art project. Despite Anna’s best efforts to be a good hostess, Ben and Andrew end up at a party in a queer artists’ colony one night. When a couple excitedly explains to them their plan to submit a film to Seattle’s Humpfest, an “amateur dirty film festival,” Ben and Andrew drunkenly decide to submit a film of their own to the festival—filming themselves having sex, which will be “beyond gay” since they’re both straight. The next morning, they find themselves making excuses not to back down from the project.

Unmoored in time, Humpday feels very slight, but it’s important to remember that in 2009 (oh, those ancient times a mere seven years ago), bromances were trending in pop culture—Apatow movies had gained cultural ascendency, “Guy Love” was a cheeky ditty capitalizing homoerotic overtones, I Love You, Man was in theaters, and even sexy new hit British show Sherlock had fun with letting Sherlock and John be mistaken for a gay couple. (This was back before we knew that the fun Sherlock was having was at our expense.) But it was nearly all of the “no homo” variety, with physical affection and therefore queer romantic or sexual behavior being played for laughs.

In that context, Humpday becomes an obvious riposte to that prevailing attitude. After drunkenly stumbling onto the idea, they spend most of the movie thinking about their pornographic film as the ultimate in outré art. It takes Ben and Andrew until the end of the film to realize that two guys having sex with each other isn’t a shocking, grand artistic statement, even if they’re straight. Director and screenwriter Lynn Shelton slyly puts Ben and Andrew into situations where they must confront the lies they tell themselves about themselves. For all Ben’s protests that he’s still a cool dude, he’s still skittish and weird at the party. When self-styled wild child Andrew is invited for a threesome with a queer couple, he balks when one of his erstwhile lovers (played by Shelton herself) insists on treating him as an addition to her usual lovemaking, not as a replacement.

And then there’s Anna, who would be a put-upon wife in a film closer to the Apatow range. Here, though, she’s given agency and humanity in a very welcome way. When she finds out that Ben is trying to make this film without ever talking to her if it’s cool for him to have sex outside of their marriage, she responds by making clear her terms and reminding Ben that she has a life and facets of herself beyond her marriage and her impending motherhood.

But the key word above is sly, which ends up meaning that it doesn’t punch as hard as I want it to. (I’ve been having this problem with modern American comedies as of late—I felt much the same way about Trainwreck.) I’m largely unfamiliar with mumblecore as a cinematic genre—I’ve only ever heard the term in connection with this film, which came across my desk at a time when I was still looking up films on Kids in Mind to make sure there was queer content in it before seeing it. (It’s been languishing on my movies to watch spreadsheet for quite some time, if you couldn’t tell.) When Ben and Andrew chicken out at the end, prevented from making their film by the simple fact that they are not sexually attracted to one another, the only fallout they have to deal with is Anna’s rightful anger at Ben for trying to sneak this past her. For all its subversive potential, it ends up feeling… well, about two straight guys going through a midlife crisis.

And I feel really weird about that. Obviously, I want to support Lynn Shelton—she’s a bisexual filmmaker who worked hard to get where she is and completely deserves it! For all its shaggy microbudget mumblecore cred, Humpday feels efficient and well put together, a solid execution of its premise. But I kind of regret coming to her work through this and not, say, Your Sister’s Sister.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

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