Sunday, May 23, 2010

To hump or not to hump


A pleasant surprise is probably the best way to describe Humpday, an intelligent and well made - though very slight - film from writer/director Lynn Shelton. It supposedly falls within the newly formed genre of "mumblecore" but I can't really comment on that since this would be the first representative film of said genre that I've seen. The film is a very low-fi affair with a great deal of improvisation in both acting and camerawork. The spontaneity works wonderfully in the former but not so much the latter. The actors do a surprisingly good job and manage to form characters that are much more well rounded and three dimensional than one sees in a great deal of contemporary scripted dramas. The standouts are Joshua Leonard as the Kerouacesque Andrew and Alycia Delmore who plays Anna, the wife of the Mark Duplass' character. Duplass himself does a fine job of portraying Ben, the other main protagonist of the story, but his character is such a standard example of American mid-life crisis and suburban existential angst (though with a great deal more nuance than one usually sees in such films) that he doesn't get to explore as interesting shades of character as Leonard and Delmore.

The plot is well known to a lot of people: A couple of old college buddies meet up again, one a beatnik-type "artist" who hasn't finished a single art project in his life and the other a responsible, middle class guy embarking upon a life of marriage, childrearing and the quintissential white picket fence. After a night of bong-rips and further carousing they drunkenly dare each other to make an entry for the porn-film-fest "Humpday." To make an entry that is actually interesting and "artistic" they come upon the not-so-brilliant idea to have sex with each other on film (two straight guys having sex... it's "beyond gay!").

When this basic set-up is first introduced it feels very forced and ridiculous. If you're a straight guy whose ever played the game of "Would you rather...?" you know that having sex with another dude makes a lot of really unpleasant things seem much more pleasant in comparison. As the film builds towards the inevitable climax (hah!) it actually gets more nuanced, sensitive and complex and offers an interesting meditation on sexuality, friendship and facing one's greatest fears. A lot of this is conveyed through little character quirks and quiet moments rather than big "plot" developments or melodrama. The film reminded me, in quite a few ways, of the kind of films that John Cassavette's was famous for in the 60's and 70's, very low-budget films exploring dark and strange corners of the human psyche, although this film actually offers something that Cassavette's was often sorely lacking, namely a sense of humor. The film is quite funny in places, without going for any forced guffaws (a la The Hangover), instead actually using humor and levity to convey surprisingly deep truths.

This is not to say that the film is a masterpiece of any sorts. The direction and cinematogrophy are rather irritating in places, suffering from many of the same self-conscious traps that characterized the similarly low-budget, character driven films of the Dogme 95 movement (most of which were horribly bad, aside from the occasional gem such as Vinterberg's Festen). The focus is unnecessarily dropped ("look at how low-fi we are... we don't even care about the focus!"), the direction is rather bland and some scenes needed some definite pruning. The editing is an asset, though, as the film has quite a nice rhythm to it, often cutting between reaction shots or one scene and another in ways that keep things lively and funny.

So Humpday is quite a nice film that is much more sensitive and interesting than one might believe from the premise. The third act is actually the best thing about the film, resolving the building tension in a very intelligent and human way that not only serves the story well but touches on interesting philosophical issues as Ben and Andrew come to realize some of the underlying reasons for why they feel impelled to go through with such a ridiculous act. The film is kind of the cinematic equivalant of a very nice, reflective short story. It might not change your life or reveal the mysteries of the universe but it offers beautiful moments and some very nice art, especially from the very talented actors.

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