The 2009 comedy Humpday is Lynn Shelton’s masterpiece as a filmmaker and storyteller, a movie so attuned to its dynamic characters and point of view that it almost hurts to watch it. Ever since I saw this movie roughly five years ago, I’ve constantly been reminded of how brilliant and funny it is, and after revisiting it recently, I was blown away to find that the surprises still surprise – this is one of those under the radar gems (Shelton specializes in those) that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s the sort of film that shatters the notion of male sexuality in ways that few pieces of art dare to ever explore, and because the lead performances from Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard are so precise and heartfelt, I find it impossible to believe that this film couldn’t leave a lasting impression on any viewer. Shelton’s films always explore society and the people living on the fringes of our landscapes, and as usual, her innate sense of emotional complexity is in full stride here, as her improvised story goes to some seriously awesome and complicated places. It’s the sort of film that will tell you a lot about yourself as a person while you watch it, because while the scenario that gets played out will seem far-fetched to many (including myself upon first knowledge of the project), you buy into it because of everyone’s conviction in the material and how naturalistic and honest everything feels.
The premise is very simple in idea but beyond layered in execution and intent. Two heterosexual male friends, Ben (Duplass) and Andrew (Leonard), reconnect after 10 years of not hanging out. Old friends, guys who go way back, these are two men who know each other very well, but have allowed their lives to take them on different paths in recent years. But when they see each other, it’s like it was yesterday that they were chilling out, and it’s a natural fit for the two of them to be in each other’s orbits. One night while at a party with lots of old pals and after some solid drinking and puffing, Ben and Andrew end up in one of the most interesting “I Dare You” situations that they’ve ever encountered: Would they be able to have one night of sexual relations with each other, which would of course be filmed, as a way of creating an “art project” that they could then submit to a local film festival for consideration. Ben, naturally, has to discuss this idea with his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore), but he doesn’t really tell her the truth, which leads to its own set of interesting developments. But most importantly, this rather groundbreaking slice of sex comedy dares challenge our preconceived notions of what male friendship is all about, what its limitations are, and how two straight buddies might be able to convince themselves that one night of homosexual relations would do nothing at all to their long lasting friendship. That the film consists of numerous scenes of Ben and Andrew discussing their “date” in great detail should be of no major shock; but rather, it’s HOW they discuss their idea that makes this film as sharp as it is.
There isn’t one false step in this movie, not one bad scene, not one moment where you feel that this isn’t exactly what all of the creative parties had intended to do. In countless modern sex comedies, the idea of two women casually having a sexual tryst has been repeatedly shown in movie after movie, so it’s no surprise that the “hook” of Humpday is likely to provoke and potentially shock casual viewers, if not, however sadly, offend. This is a progressive film that looks at sex and friendship in a unique and soul-stirring way, and while it’d be a crime to reveal how the movie ends, I’ll allow that it’s note perfect, taking things to their logical conclusion if these two particular men just so happened to be involved in this highly delicate and potentially life changing experiment. Duplass and Leonard were totally unafraid with their performances, registering a sense of friendship that feels deep and well observed at all times. And as usual, Shelton brought her terrific eye for small details of humanistic comedy at almost every possible moment, and even has a terrific extended cameo as one of the party goers on that fateful night of dares. If you haven’t see Humpday, or were wishy-washy on it for whatever reason, I highly recommend this marvelous, incredibly funny film to anyone who is unfamiliar.