Magnolia Home Entertainment,

Lynn Shelton

Mark Duplass,
Joshua Leonard,
Alycia Delmore,
Lynn Shelton,
Trina Willard

Rated R, 94 minutes

Sex, Guys And Videotape
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, April 2010

My life partner has problems understanding the concept of "Bro-mate" and "Bromances." He recently worked with two 20-something men who were best friends and roommates. They both dated women but fooled around with each other too. This is a phenomenon that was virtually unknown to us when we attended university in the 1970s. If I had come on to my best college bro, he'd have ran away screaming and I would have never seen him again.

Humpday, a brilliant 2009 comedy from writer/director Lynn Shelton, tackles this subject from a new and unusual angle. Male best friends have traditionally enjoyed bonds that transcend their relationships with women. Guys will tell their best bro things that he would never tell a wife or a girlfriend. Horseplay between straight men often borders on the homoerotic. Still, there is one line most don't want to cross. It could mean the end of a beautiful platonic friendship. Sex can complicate any relationship and most straight guys share an inbred terror of becoming intimate with a dude. Humpday asks what would happen if two longtime straight friends were talked into performing in a porn video together. Will this spell the end of their bromance?

Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) are old college pals and they haven't seen each other in years. They were going to be the next Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity from Kerouac's On The Road but Ben got cold feet before they embarked on their big backpacking adventure. Now they are in their early 30s. Ben is married - happily - to Anna (Alycia Delmore). They are awoken one night by a loud knocking at the door. It is Andrew, who has just returned from Mexico and impulsively decided to drop by. At the sight of his old buddy, Ben regresses to his college days. The room is filled with uncorked testosterone and ferocious bear hugs. When Anna wanders in, her husband and this strange bearded guy are still loudly laughing, hugging, punching each other and saying "I love you man." Upon seeing her, Andrew smiles broadly and announces, " I don't love you yet, but I will." Always the eternal good sport, even though she knows nothing about this guy, Anna agrees to let Andrew spend the night. All they can offer him is a sleeping bag in a storage room but he's cool with it.

The following evening, Andrew takes Ben into the home of a bi-sexual artist whom he's just met. A crude sign on her door reads: Dionysius. A number of bohemian artist types are there, including a gay couple and the host's lesbian lover. The atmosphere is very Haight-Ashbury; much drinking, pot smoking and dancing ensues. Andrew has been seeking inspiration for a new art project, and he is intrigued when the others talk about the yearly "Humpfest" contest. Sponsored by the Seattle alternative newspaper, The Stranger, the competition involves making the best short porn film. When Ben declares that all porn has been done already, someone has an idea. Andrew and Ben, wanting to appear sexually hip, enthusiastically accept a dare to make a porn film together. The ultimate artistic statement: two straight dudes boning. It would "push boundaries" or, as Andrew puts it, "It would be beyond gay!"
Meanwhile, Ben is about to face the wrath of an angry wife who is waiting for him back home. Ben was only supposed to "put in a little face time" at this party and then return. She has made dinner and they had intimate plans for the evening; they are trying to have a child and she's at the end of a cycle. Ben is apologetic when he finally crawls in but he also has other things on his mind. Did he and his best friend really just rent a hotel room for Sunday night and agree to make a sex film together?
But, oddly enough, a bet is a bet and these guys seem to treat it like a solemn oath. It could be for art, it could be for friendship. Each gives the other an "out" - after all, they were hardly sober the night before - but both seem determined to go through with it. "What about your wife?" Andrew asks and Ben says she'll be cool with it. When Andrew accidentally spills the beans, Anna is decidedly not pleased. Exiled, Ben spends the night in the storage room with Andrew. But Anna is a wise woman. Get this out of your system, she tells Ben the next day. She'd rather find out now if there's more going on here than they realize before they have a child together.
Humpday is a very funny film. The situation is as outrageous as a farce by Moliere yet remains entirely plausible. One thing I want to make clear is that there is not a hint of homophobia anywhere to be found in Humpday. This is lightyears from an Adam Sandler comedy and the complete absence of fag jokes is both refreshing and welcome. Most Hollywood filmmakers seem incapable of making a movie about sex that doesn't rise above the intellect of a 12 year old. Could this one work so well because the project was conceived by a woman? Humpday never resorts to cheap laughs, and reverberates instead with insightful truths that arise naturally from the improvised dialogue (more on that later). It is a sophisticated sex comedy and it delivers the goods.
I was reminded a bit of Paul Mazursky's Bob And Carol And Ted And Alice. That film's witty take on the era's sexual freedom was daring and delightfully naughty in 1969 and still retains most of its wit even today. Humpday introduces a new wild card to that mix. As Sunday looms, Andrew and Ben spend a lot of time talking about their impending rendezvous. There is nervousness, there are confessions, there are negotiations over the roles they will play. Again, there is no attempt to back out. Andrew considers himself to be a failure as an artist because he has never finished any of his projects. He is determined to finish this one. Do these brothers in arms follow through and go all the way? I'll leave that for the viewer to discover but I will say this: they do make it to the hotel room and what happens is... complicated.
Director Lynn Shelton's approach to all this is quite unique. All of the film's dialogue was improvised. Shelton's script described each of the scene's set-ups and, after extensive discussion with her actors, she let two cameras roll. Most of the camerawork is hand-held. She also shot the film in sequence and this was a boon towards capturing the performances she wanted. The interplay, and the timing, between the actors is natural and unforced. I'd be dishonest if I didn't say that parts are filmed sloppily because of this radical technique but, surprisingly, most of it works and that is a testament to everyone involved. All three leads are terrific.
Sex is a worthy topic for films to explore in depth; unfortunately there are so few that do it with any degree of intelligence. Humpday's sophistication is worth noting because none of this resembles the typical sex in a Hollywood blockbuster. The film opens with Ben and Anna quietly making love and then both admitting they're too tired to do anything. Anna is given a sexual appetite to rival her husband's. As Ben lays in bed, passed out and hungover from the night at Dionysius, he awakes to Anna "mounting [him] like a horse." I was reminded of a similar scene in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut when Anna, (after Ben tries to explain why he's doing a sex film with Andrew), confesses to making out with a man at a party the previous year. If Ben gets jealous, then he's a hypocrite. This is good adult stuff. There is also a scene where Andrew goes to bed with the two lesbian artists and discovers that he isn't as adventurous as he thought when he finds the sex toys they brought along. "You're not as Kerouac as you think you are," Ben tells Andrew, "and I'm not as white picket fence as you think I am."
There was never any doubt that both men are heterosexual through and through. As established in the opening scene, Ben is truly in love with his wife and enjoys a satisfying sex life. The scene where Andrew tries to make out with the two ladies affirms his sexuality. Neither man is the Sylvester Stallone type but they nevertheless breathe testosterone. Still, there is an underlying homo-eroticism; even if only the gay men in the audience notice it. A basketball game between the two turns aggressive. Wrestling for the ball, they roll around on the pavement and their grappling takes on sexual overtones. There is a very funny, but telling, scene in which Ben admits to Andrew that, during a time when he felt lonely, he once felt an attraction to a male video clerk. He wondered what it would be like to kiss him but when he thought about the man's hairy balls he never went back to that video store again. There is a long, awkward pause and then Andrew finally says, "I don't think I've ever had one of those moments" and laughs loudly. "You're pretty solidly not gay," Andrew declares, and Ben quickly adds, "Yeah, I think the same thing about you."
What happens in the hotel room occupies the film's last twenty minutes and it is a tour de force. Its spontaneity is a testament to the two actors and they are nothing short of brilliant together. The awkwardness of the situation is superbly conveyed with both humor and pathos. Consider just this one moment: Andrew suggests that they hug with their shirts off. They give each other a big bear hug and then, as they hold each other for a moment, the camera pans down to show their small potbellies touching but their crotches are pulled back away as far as they can stretch. The lengthy scene is punctuated with many such touches and the realism is striking. Andrew asks if he can pee first before they start. Both men jump up and down like a pair of boxers, pounding their chests and clapping their hands and shouting "Yeah!" and "Let's do it!" as if preparing for a major league sport. Andrew compares this to bungee jumping, except that you "don't have to have a hard-on to bungee jump."

Reactions to their hotel room rendezvous will probably be split down hetero/homo lines. I cannot divulge my own response without it turning into a spoiler. Good endings can often be elusive. There really was no way to end Humpday satisfactorily but the conclusion, though anti-climactic on some levels, is realistic and it works. Too many films end with a superficial bang but Shelton trusts her audience. Her insights into the male psyche reminded me of Rose Troche's Bedrooms and Hallways, another offbeat exploration of masculinity and sex. Humpday was overshadowed by Bruno during its theatrical run and that's a pity because Humpday, in its own quiet way, is actually a far more subversive film. It's high concept but low key. The cast is outstanding and this collaborative effort brings Shelton's vision to life. Good improv is difficult and these three actors have the chops to pull it off. A mix of guerrilla filmmaking and an intimate stage performance, Humpday is not your assemblyline Hollywood sex farce and you will feel enriched.

By the way, if anyone was curious, "Humpfest" is an actual event that is held annually by The Stranger.