Sunday, August 9, 2009

Humpday

Dir. Lynn Shelton

Lynn Shelton's follow-up to my pick for 2008's best, My Effortless Brilliance, never quite matches that film's heights but that may be due to a lack of trying. Humpday is a funny movie, funnier than Brilliance, so I can't knock it too much if the stakes never feel quite as high. This is partly due to the film having a familiar set-up: the reuniting of two old friends who have gone down different paths and the emotional turmoil that results.

Mark Duplass plays Ben, a guy who's begun to settle into domestic bliss with his fiancée Anna (Alycia Delmore) and a picket fence. When Joshua Leonard's Andrew comes knocking, he quickly stirs up some dormant feelings and Ben can't help but try to reclaim some of those artistic ideals from his college days. Unfortunately they settle on creating an art project for Humpfest, an arty, homebrew porn festival wherein the average Jane and Joe reclaim pornography by submitting their own intimate, personal portraits. During an under-the-influence night at a bohemian party (co-hosted by Lynn Shelton herself as a bi-sexual frisky new friend of Andrew's), both men decide that the highest form of artistic achievement in pornography would be to feature two straight life-long friends going at it. Amidst the swirling hookah smoke, Ben even books a room for next Sunday.

The majority of the movie is Ben and Andrew, in the few days leading up to Sunday night, coming to terms with the idea and rationalizing why neither one wants to back down. We find out that if Andrew were to back out of this "art project" it would be the latest in a long line of abandoned or unfinished projects. And Ben needs to prove to himself, if not everyone else, that he's more than just a working-stiff with his best years behind him. It could be considered a detriment that the film tips its hand early and often. To a certain extent the movie spells it out rather than allow the audience to figure out the details behind Ben and Andrew's one-upsmanship. But I appreciate that the characters are self-aware -- it makes sense to me that these guys would analyze their situation to death. Maybe it does put too fine a point on it but it feels natural to me, and that is Shelton's cinematic gift.

While two old friends talking about their lack of resolve or losing their individuality doesn't carry the weight of two old friends trying to bury the hatchet, Humpday does find a lot of honesty and no small amount of terrific, cringe-worthy comedic moments in this situation. This film will hit close to home for anyone who's ever lost sight of their artistic side in favor of some security in life, or likes to consider themselves an artist simply because they live the lifestyle. Even if that's not you, chances are you've got some familiarity with these guys. And Duplass and Leonard's work here makes you feel like you've hung out with these guys many times before.

But what of Anna? In an odd bit of irony, Lynn Shelton has proved to be a master of exploring the male ego but has yet to present us with a female character as thoroughly three dimensional. Anna's given a couple nice moments in the film when she tries to get to know Andrew over half a bottle of Scotch and when she reveals a secret of her own to a helpless Ben. But it all feels a little obligatory, like Anna is a character that's only there for story needs and not part of the organic surroundings. Delmore does fine with what she's given, but it would be nice to see what Shelton could do with a strong female character in one of her stories.

In a related note - Shelton's superior My Effortless Brilliance can be viewed through Amazon.com's Video On Demand for $3.99. It's fantastic that Humpday has been able to get the distribution that Brilliance never did, and it deserves it, but it's still a shame that Brilliance remains largely hidden.

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