Humpday (Magnolia Pictures) may not be the single best movie I’ve seen so far this year—though it’s certainly a contender for the title—but it’s without doubt the most surprising. To listen to a description of the plot (two straight male friends somehow psych each other into collaborating on a gay porn film starring themselves), you’d think you knew exactly what kind of movie this is. The pitch meeting is drearily easy to imagine: Zack and Miri Make a Porno would be invoked, as would I Love You, Man, with the proper name Jonah Hill and the adjective Apatovian thrown in there somewhere. But Humpday exists in a realm blessedly apart from the mass-produced homosocial comedies of recent years. It’s not even a response to, or a critique of, the Hollywood “bromance.” It’s a brainy, sparkling riff on friendship, marriage, sexual identity, and art.
As the movie opens, Ben (Mark Duplass), a Seattle-based transportation engineer, lies in bed with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). The two seem genuinely happy and in love, but there are the subtlest hints of marital ennui. Ben’s wedding ring is just little too prominently foregrounded in the shot, and when the two agree that they’re both too tired for sex, they’re giddy with relief. As they’re drifting off to sleep, the doorbell rings. It’s Andrew (Joshua Leonard), Ben’s best friend from college, a bohemian drifter who thinks nothing of showing up without calling at 2 a.m. Andrew beds down in the basement for a few days, his larger-than-life presence trying Anna’s patience even as it puts Ben in touch with an earlier, edgier version of himself.
Andrew drags Ben to a party hosted by a lesbian couple, where, after a few bong hits and glasses of wine, the conversation turns to Humpfest, an annual amateur porn-film festival hosted by the Seattle Stranger. (This event really exists, and you still have almost three months to ready this year’s submission.) Fueled by THC and sheer bravado, Ben and Andrew come up with a concept: They’ll rent a hotel room, turn on a camera, and film themselves having sex. The resulting video will be “beyond gay,” whatever that means, and for reasons that are never quite clear even to Ben and Andrew themselves, the experience of filming it will be both an act of creative expression and a character-building challenge.
As the clock ticks down toward “Humpday,” Ben and Andrew repeatedly talk themselves into and out of the project, tiptoeing all the while around the question of how to break the news to Anna. It’s a talky movie, but the (partly improvised) talk is marvelously intricate and precise. Somehow the director, Lynn Shelton (who also plays a small but pivotal role as the Sapphic party host), manages to keep her high-concept premise afloat in a purely naturalistic setting. Ben’s and Andrew’s motives are at times comically self-serving and absurd, but their characters aren’t set up as targets of satire. They’re not clueless homophobes rigidly guarded against the possibility of real intimacy, nor are they the postmodern groovesters they’d like to believe they are. When the day of the big porn shoot finally arrives—I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what happens physically between the two men, but I can say that it’s accompanied by an epic, hilarious, and unpredictable conversation.
Humpday is shot in the casual, semi-scripted style associated with the irritating term “mumblecore” (a word I dislike both for its condescension and its inaccuracy; far from mumbling, the overeducated, middle-class protagonists of such movies are usually articulate to a fault). Essentially a three-person chamber piece, the movie depends entirely on the chemistry among its actors, and all three come through superbly. Joshua Leonard could easily have played the interloping Andrew as a party-animal caricature; instead, he’s a disarmingly vulnerable charmer. Mark Duplass, a director himself (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) makes the frustrated Ben into someone you’ve totally known (or been) at some point in your life, and Alycia Delmore shines in the potentially thankless role of his confused and angry wife. Humpday made me want to call up my best friend and—well, maybe not make a movie with her (not that kind, anyway) but at least convince her to see this one.