Humpday Review and Podcast
Below you’ll find a review of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, which accompanies the interview I conducted with her about the movie that you can read here. On top of that there’s a new feature on A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity, podcasts. In this particular podcast, I interview famed 13 year-old critic Jordan Walters regarding his thoughts on the themes of Humpday. Click the play icon to listen to the podcast.
Or you can download the podcast here.
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The recent success of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno expresses more than just a need for lowbrow comedy and exposed penises; it’s a reaffirmation of America’s losing battle with gay panic. Cohen’s new filmpurports to be about exposing hypocrisies (much like his brilliant 2006 film Borat was), but is in fact limited to Cohen’s own discomfort with homosexuality. He presents Brüno, already a rather limited character by the standards of his repertoire, as baldly as possible by defining him as purely a sexual being, with no way to engage people, except to shove his overt stereotype down people’s throats. The reaction is not often the bigoted one he was looking for; rather it’s revulsion at the notion of a man literally trying to shove his genitals in people’s faces. By breaking down his gay character to the lowest common denominator basics, he reveals his level of imagination on the subject matter, reinforced by a scene late in the film, where he appears visibly reticent about kissing one of his fellow male actors in a convincing fashion, and does it in an over-exaggerated manner more appropriate for the fratboy insincere homoeroticism of an episode of Saturday Night Live.
Lynn Shelton’s Humpday goes headlong into the gay panic traffic jam and doesn’t stop until the characters and the audience has seen how far macho behavior can cross the boundaries of testosterone-driven competition until it becomes a literal gay love story. Her characters are Ben and Andrew, two college friends who have gone down separate paths, Ben towards suburban domesticity and marriage, Andrew, on a self-envisioned Kerouac-style trip around the world to do everything he can with his life, taking every chance possible in order to prove to himself…, well, it’s not clear to him. Ben, played by Mumblecore representative Mark Duplass (writer/director of The Puffy Chair and Baghead) appears to be going down the straight and narrow to prove to himself that he’s a responsible man, which is no doubt what kept his loyal wife Anna, played by Alycia Delmore, around.
It is suggested throughout Humpday that Ben and Andrew (played by Joshua Leonard, the sole career survivor of the bandwagon turn against The Blair Witch Project) were standard “wild” drunks and coozehounds, at least in their own mind. No doubt it was much less risky and exciting than they choose to remember it, which could easily describe many a liberal college graduate. Andrew’s behavior could be read as a rejection of every nesting and responsibility notion that was imparted in his university years. When he arrives unannounced in the middle of the night at Ben and Anna’s house, it isn’t just an excuse to get the plot going with Andrew’s antics stirring up memories for Ben causing a rift between him and Anna. No, Andrew clearly has nowhere to stay, and his condescending view is that Ben-the-square could never have anything too exciting going on that couldn’t immediately be interrupted. However, Ben and Anna were indeed having an intimate moment, the only true intimacy they’re allowed in Humpday.
One of the most refreshing things about Humpday is the way it handles how couples deal with sexual intimacy and how it sometimes crosses over with routine. As opposed to the condescending tweeness of Sam Mendes’ Away We Go, Humpday’s opening sex scenes is genuine, clumsy, and not a set-up for calculated punchlines. When Anna brazenly takes off her pants in a later scene, attempting to mount a hung over Ben just so they can procreate, her impatience and her nonchalant nudity is like a middle finger towards all of the carefully placed sheets and towels in a comparable Hollywood sex scene. You’d think some of the coy actresses would realize that it’s actually more distracting to awkwardly cover up as opposed to how a couple who is comfortable with each other wouldn’t worry about a nipple slip. In fact, Anna’s matter-of-factness with her body and Ben as a stable person is what drives the rest of the story forward.
While Andrew causing a distraction by forcing himself on his old friend and wife (“I don’t love you yet, but I will!”) could easily turn Humpday in the standard direction of wacky antics and passive aggressive behavior of the upstanding middle class too polite to ask their friend to leave without worrying about lifelong guilt, like a low-budget You, Me, and Dupree. Beneath his thick beard, Leonard’s facial expressions and demeanor more than suggest Owen Wilson and Duplass could pass for a fatter version of the everymannish Ron Livingston, who is already a Matt Dillon surrogate. But Shelton, who claimed that there was no script for Humpday, only an outline which was improvised around (originally there was no credited screenwriter), goes in a different direction than the sitcomy You, Me, and Dupree, even mocking the “no character development of women allowed” feature of the Dupree genre.
Anna’s character in Humpday could come off like a nag or a doormat, but she’s actually the most sensible of anyone else on screen. When Andrew invites Ben to an “out of control” party at his new girlfriend’s home/commune (“It’s called Dionysus, and they mean it”), Ben assumes he’ll be polite for an hour and leave, telling Anna he’ll be home for dinner. But Ben gets sucked into the atmosphere and ends up getting drunk where he goes macho a macho with his friend Andrew. Spurred by a discussion of an art project called “Humpfest,” wherein ordinary people film themselves having sex in an “artistic” fashion and show it at the festival a few days later, Ben and Andrew end up challenging each other to make their own “artistic” porn, having sex with each other. Not to chalk it up to an alcohol-induced inspiration, Ben insists that he and Andrew stick to the plan, utilizing the hotel room he’s already booked for the occasion. Ben tells Andrew he can change his mind if he wants to, of course causing neither man wanting to look like a wuss by backing out on their gay porn. Anna, of course, sees right through the insecurity, but she’s willing to let her husband hang himself out to dry, rather than give him the out he so desperately craves.
The ludicrousness of the challenge, two men trying to prove how strong and heterosexual they are by making gay porn, threatens to turn Humpday, into a one-joke premise. But Shelton makes sure we have to deal with all of the same discomfort the characters go through (“you don’t have a hard-on to bungee jump”), including one of the most squirm-inducing and hilarious scenes in recent memory, where Ben tries to convince his wife of his need to make the movie (including asking for a “get-out-of-jail-free” card), even though he doesn’t even believe it. It brings to mind easily the most seat-shifting movie of the decade, Miguel Arteta’s Chuck and Buck, where Mike White’s overbearing, creepy, and clueless man-child has no understanding of society’s rules and inadvertently challenges people to tolerate him, because he simply won’t politely go away.
In Humpday, it’s the situation that won’t politely go away and watching Ben and Andrew try to deal with their idiocy, is surreal, because the actors are also clearly trying to get a grip on it too (the film has very naturalistic dialogue), never quite knowing where their fear and certainty will take them.
While she gets the least screen time of the three main characters, the story is clearly Anna’s. Amongst Ben and Andrew’s foolishness, she’s both a patient observer and moral compass, and one can see on Delmore’s face that she doesn’t know whether her husband’s premise is something that he needs to get out of his system, or he’s the stupidest man she’s ever met. She looks at Ben and thinks “is this the idiot I want to spend the rest of my life with?”