It's hardly news that homoerotic impulses sometimes underlie the conflicted affections that emerge during buddy movies. I'm not saying that hidden or undigested gayness constitutes the whole buddy-movie story, but it can be an element.
Humpday, a movie that caused quite a stir at last January's Sundance Film Festival, manages a neat trick: It turns homoerotic-buddy-movie subtext into text, bringing sexual issues into the foreground.
The premise sounds simple and contrived: Two straight guys decide to star in a gay porn film and enter it into Seattle's amateur porn festival. The videos are judged, and then burned to eliminate all incriminating evidence.
The movie's two men -- played by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard -- are former college buddies, who haven't seen each other for ten years. Ben is married and living a life that conforms to middle-class expectation. He and his wife (Alycia Delmore) are trying to have their first baby. Leonard's Andrew has been living on the loose, traveling and attempting to mimic the lifestyle he imagines an artist would live.
We know something major looms when Andrew knocks on Ben's door in the middle of the night, beginning a surprise visit that later results in the two of them getting stoned at a party and coming up with the idea for the porno, perhaps to impress strangers who might be a lot more sexually liberated than either of them.
All of this sounds implausible, and if the characters hadn't been exceptionally well drawn, the movie might never have transcended its gimmicky premise.
Character is the key. It's best to view Humpday as the story of three specific people, as well as an often-funny meditation on male identity. Ben is frightened by the idea of settling into a life of routine. For him, the porno might be a last-gasp attempt at showing that he's not entirely bound by convention. Andrew, on the other hand, never has completed any task, and he's not sure how committed he is to his neo-Bohemian ways. Delmore's Anna tries to be open-minded, but knows that she has her limits.
Director Lynn Shelton, who appears in the movie as a bisexual partygoer, gives the movie the humor it deserves, allowing the actors to stumble their way toward moments of surprising honesty. Sure there are laughs, but underlying tension pervades every scene. Will Ben and Andrew actually take their own dare? And, if so, why are they doing something that obviously makes the both of them extremely uncomfortable?
Humpday allows the characters to be open without trying to convince us that they're beyond self-deception. It falls to Delmore's Anna to advance the movie's most reasonable positions while Ben and Andrew turn their potential sexual encounter into a twisted contest. Who will chicken out first and be the lesser man for it?)
Humpday manages to be both fun and challenging, and although it may not have been uppermost in Shelton's mind, it also serves as a nifty illustration of generational self-absorption. Ben and Andrew live in a world that may be coming apart at the seams, but nothing seems more important to them than themselves. They seem to be as interested in how they're perceived as in who they really are.