Thank God it’s “Humpday”

Lynn Shelton's breakthrough bromance comedy is funny, sharp and true -- with no preachy sexual politics

Topics: Beyond the Multiplex, Pornography, LGBT, Movies,

Thank God it's "Humpday"

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard in “Humpday.”

It looks to me as if Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s adroit comedy “Humpday” — a Sundance hit last winter that’s now being released by Magnolia Pictures — is in some danger of being swallowed by its own premise. On one hand, you couldn’t ask for better publicity for a low-budget indie film that was based on improvisation and shot without a screenplay. Some lazy critics will classify “Humpday” as a “mumblecore” movie, but that term never meant much and has now become a pejorative. Nobody wanders aimlessly through this film; Shelton is a sharp and perceptive director and storyteller who suggests Nicole Holofcener or early Mike Leigh.

Now, if “Humpday” isn’t a mumblecore movie, it also isn’t a movie about homosexuality or bisexuality or any other kind of sexuality. That despite the widely disseminated fact that its protagonists, one-time college hell-raisin’ pals Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), who are struggling to reconnect, get really drunk at some hipster chick’s house and dare each other to make a porn film. Together. With nobody else in the room. Indeed, Ben and Andrew do end up behind closed doors at the “Bonin’ Motel” (Ben’s felicitous phrase) with a video camera. But what happens in there is a plot point in a story about two old friends, one a married guy in pleated pants, the other a rootless drifter. It isn’t the point of the entire film.

I can’t really emphasize this enough: “Humpday” is a smart and subtle comedy that takes on yuppie marriage, the self-congratulatory Seattle hipster subculture, and the difficult passage from post-collegiate dudeliness into manhood. Shelton isn’t trying to convince you that all guys want to do their best friends or that everyone’s sexuality is inherently fluid, and she isn’t selling any other variety of quasi-subversive gender-studies theoretical twaddle. (Some of the film’s characters may be asking themselves those kinds of questions, but that’s quite another matter.) Those who go to this movie expecting some sex-radical manifesto will be disappointed. Those who skip it, for fear of such a manifesto, will be missing one of the smartest and funniest films of the year, made by an impressive new director.

You can read my original Sundance review of “Humpday” here and read (or hear) my interview with Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard here. In the interest of pleasing the lazybones constituency, here’s an excerpt from that interview.

Actors have this cliché about taking risks in films. I think you guys managed to do that this time.

Mark Duplass: We did take a risk. Not only did we take a risk about what we decided to display of ourselves in the inner and outer realms, but it was a risk whether this movie was going to work at all. I mean, let’s face it, just the concept of two straight dudes getting it on — is that believable in any way? We were all very skeptical, but also very excited, about the fact that we’re really going to have to keep this under the microscope the whole time. “Is this real? Is this real?” That was our big question.

Joshua Leonard: Because it was a bit of an experiment, there was always a palpable sense of the possibility that it wouldn’t work. There was also a tremendous amount of trust between Mark and Lynn [Shelton] and I, whereby we could critique each other and critique ourselves safely. There was never a moment where any of us walked out of a scene and didn’t feel like we had been allowed the latitude to find something that felt very true to us.

One of the things that occurred to me after seeing the film is that there’s a parallel between what the two characters are trying to do in the film — trying to do this art project that may or may not work and this sex act that may or may not work — and then what you guys were actually trying to do. So the whole thing, the inner story and the outer story, is a little bit like a high-wire act.

J.L.: I hadn’t thought about that in those terms but one of the things that was exciting about this movie is the way it was structured. There was no script. We shot from a detailed outline and we shot it all in sequential order, so that the improvisation we were doing would sort of feed into the next shoot. We’d know what we had shot and could build upon it. And the thing that got us all excited was we decided that we would not know what was going to happen in the last scene, and we would not talk about it. We would rent a motel room for the boys, for all-night shooting, and we did. We shot for 12 hours and we would just show up and see what happens. So yeah, I guess there is a bit of a little meta-parallel to draw there.

Not to give anything away, we don’t want to do that — but you literally didn’t know what was going to happen when the two guys got, you know …

J.L.: Absolutely no idea. Throughout the course of the movie we had presented, or at least attempted to, this very three-dimensional journey. We had given them a ton of reasons to go through with it, and the desire to go through with it. And a ton of reasons to, you know, not be able to go through with it. So I think we walked in with all that information and had to face the music with ourselves once we got in that room and figure out where …

M.D.: Just do what those characters would honestly do and just obey that.

I posted something about this film right after the screening and by the next morning there were about 10 e-mails in my box from people whose basic take on it was, “They can’t possibly be straight guys if they were able to do this.” So you’re provoking a reaction, totally sight unseen.

J.L.: Which is the obvious reaction. My first reaction, when Mark e-mailed me about the project, was the most obvious choice — to go with the latent homosexuality of one of the characters. And it becomes a different movie at that point.

Sure. If one of these guys is about to come out, that’s a totally different story.

J.L.: Absolutely. It’s a completely different movie. And, I think, a much more overtly political movie. And that was not what this was. You know, this was really about the exploration of a friendship between two guys facing that age, which I think Mark and I can both really relate to. You hit the phase in your life when all of a sudden you’re supposed to be an adult. You feel like you haven’t done anything and you have to get your life moving, because all of a sudden, you know, you’re getting less virile and less attractive to the opposite sex. You have to go out and build and conquer. You’ve made choices that have galvanized the rest of your life.

“Humpday” is now playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York and the Harvard Exit Theatre in Seattle. It opens July 17 in Los Angeles and San Francisco; July 24 in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., San Diego and Washington; July 31 in Hartford, Conn., Houston, Minneapolis, Monterey, Calif., Nashville, New Haven, Conn., Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., Santa Barbara, Calif., and Santa Cruz, Calif.; Aug. 7 in St. Louis; and Aug. 21 in Omaha, Neb., Salt Lake City and Santa Fe. N.M., with more cities to follow.

Other stuff this week: The mysteriously titled “Lake Tahoe,” an international fest-fave from Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke, is set not at the eponymous lake in the California-Nevada mountains but in a remote and rural Mexican town, where a young man’s apparently simple quest to get his car fixed turns into a slow-motion, shaggy-dog Odyssean epic. Teenage Juan meets an aging loner with a beloved boxer hound, a young single mom with dreams of punk stardom and a martial-arts obsessive who calls himself “The One Who Knows,” all without ever getting the damn car off that telephone pole. A master of long takes and scenes in which nothing obvious happens, Eimbcke seeks to out-Ozu Jim Jarmusch this time around — and makes his previous feature, the winsome, black-and-white “Duck Season,” look like ’90s teen comedy. Lovely, brief and supremely enigmatic, “Lake Tahoe” is a surprisingly refreshing experience, especially in a season of infernal cinematic busyness. (Now playing at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Opens July 24 in San Francisco and Seattle, with other cities and DVD release to follow.)

Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov’s delightful domestic hit “The Vanished Empire” recaptures the lost world of mid-’70s Soviet youth culture, at a moment when the so-called people’s state was at the peak of its powers and international reach — but also on the verge of catastrophic collapse. The romantic triangle, sexual discovery and pop-culture background encountered by childhood pals Sergey and Styopa (and the alluring Lyuda) are familiar elements made new by the setting, a strange alternate universe of fading socialist ideology, jaded innocence and imitation Western pop. (Now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York, with other cities and DVD release to follow.)

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>