'Humpday' Adds Fresh Hilarity To The Buddy Formula

Film Director Provides Insight And Laughs *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 Stars)

July 31, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Humpday mixes hilarity with upset as the irresistible force of male pride meets the immovable object of sexual identity. In the attention-getting plot, two straight men agree to have sex for the camera in order to win at Seattle's annual home-made porn festival, HUMP! - or, as it's called in the movie, Humpfest. At the end of each festival, the emcee, sex columnist Dan Savage, hands out awards and burns the offerings onstage. Director Lynn Shelton's observation of manly competition and fellow feeling lifts the blatant plot hook into funnier, more mysterious realms of human behavior. It's a movie for now that's also one for comedy posterity.

Shelton brings new ferment to the formula of a middle-class man's best friend barging in on his married life and disturbing his equilibrium. Ben (Mark Duplass), a transportation planner, and his loving wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), have bought a house with a room they hope to turn into a nursery. They've just postponed a bout of baby-making and have called it a night when Andrew (Joshua Leonard), the bosom buddy of his youth, comes knocking at the door. Ben compares Andrew, who is still mired in adolescence, to an exuberant, over-excitable dog. It's a way of making Andrew appear aggressively genial to Anna, who understandably balks at a fellow ringing her doorbell expecting four open arms.

Every dog has his day, and for a while, it looks like Humpday might be Andrew's. Ben sees making the gay porn film as his way of proving, to Andrew, and to himself, that he's still open to experience, that married life hasn't cauterized his freedom.

Watching the movie makes you feel "of two minds" in a good way. A pleasurable clash goes on in your head between your belief in the moment-to-moment sincerity of these two guys and your disbelief that they could ever go through with their plan.

It's a credit to Shelton's skill that this friction yields insight as well as tumult and comedy. As a director, she's an actor's dream; and as a storyteller, she's an improvisational ringleader. An actor herself, in the pivotal scene Shelton plays Monica, the bisexual hostess of the stoned, self-styled Dionysian dinner where Ben and Andrew get high and hatch their plot. Rarely does an actor give such an assured performance of a quicksilver character. Shelton gives this woman instant access to all her impulses, while making her more than a bundle of erotic urges. She has something both Ben and Andrew lack: her own design for living.

Ben acts as if he feels he's simply fallen into a good thing with Anna, while Andrew sees that traditional domestic bliss may be beyond him. Reigniting their friendship throws into stark relief all their fuzziness about who they are and how they see each other.

Their relationship is a triumph of contemporary chemistry. Ben may look square-cut and solid, but he dissembles about his plan to Anna as if he's hiding an affair. The way Duplass plays him, mischievously and subtly, Ben is basically aggressive; he uses displays of passivity to mask his confusion.

Andrew might look like a man without limits, but he does set boundaries to his behavior, no matter how many people he goes to bed with (individually or at once). Leonard wrings an attractive, even sparkling bonhomie out of a character who could have been merely a low-level Mephistopheles. Andrew possesses a genuine urge to connect with people, and that makes you feel for the guy, never more so than when he and Anna share a late-night drink. Their rapport, for that moment, is more authentic than her recent experiences with her husband. Such is the oddball spin of this movie that for an instant you wonder whether these two will end up together.

Delmore's performance as Anna is the key one in the movie: When contrasted with Leonard, she could have come off as the kind of wife stereotyped in ancient (and not-so-ancient) times as the old ball and chain. Instead, she intuitively manages to keep everyone honest, including herself, without coming off as a scold or a bore.

Shelton's method in making this movie was to let the actors riff according to her structure and guidelines. It's a style akin to British master Mike Leigh's, except Leigh and his actors create their characters in rehearsal while Shelton does it with the cameras running. This approach can be a drag in lesser hands, but Shelton's photographic talent lends her portraiture a distinctive, amused eloquence, and her playful temperament gives her scene-making a zig-zag vitality. In Humpday, she proves that honesty is the best aesthetic policy - and also the most exciting and uproarious.

'Humpday'

(Magnolia) Starring Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, and Alycia Delmore. Directed by Lynn Shelton. R for some strong sexual content, pervasive language and a scene of drug use. Time 94 minutes.

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