Two decades after sex, lies and videotape won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday took the 2009 Special Jury Prize in Park City. While more thematically modest and overtly comedic, Humpday bears enough superficial similarities to Steven Soderbergh’s breakthrough film that it almost looks like a 20th anniversary tribute. The lo-fi indies each hinge on a titillating premise involving the recording of unconventional sexuality, yet both spend more time on the emotionally complex expressions of intimacy and identity than bedroom gymnastics.
Like sex, lies and videotape, Humpday begins with a reunion when a shaggy bohemian drops in on his straightlaced friend. City planner Ben (Mark Duplass) gets a surprise visit from wandering artist Andrew (The Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard). Ben and his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) have been trying to conceive, but Andrew’s presence increasingly distracts Ben from his middle-class life path. Ben skips his wife’s pork chop dinner to hang with Andrew and some polyamorous hippies at a house enigmatically called Dionysus. During a druggy, late-night discussion of an amateur porn contest, Ben suggests that the only frontier left uncrossed would be two straight guys having sex, and the old friends joke about doing each other.
The morning after, neither Ben nor Andrew wants to back down from their promise. They both feel they have something to prove. Ben wants to assert his artistic, experimental side in defiance of his increasingly narrow, middle-class lifestyle, no matter how much he hurts and confuses his wife. Duplass’ performance nails Ben’s subconscious hypocrisy: When he argues that he’s not a square, he’s so intense and systematic in his points he seems more square than ever.
Andrew wants to finish an art project for once and prove that he’s as open-minded as the sexual pioneers of his social circle. Humpday writer/director Shelton plays one of a pair of fetching, bi-curious lesbians who turn out to be less bi than Andrew hopes. The encounter prompts him to examine the difference between “The way I like to think of myself and the way I actually am,” Leonard says as Andrew in his laid-back, Owen Wilson-style delivery.
Most films that place straight guys in homosexual contexts look for cheap, gay-panic gags of the I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry variety. Mike White’s 2000 squirm-comedy Chuck & Buck seemed intent on scoring a political point by exposing the sexual skeletons in the straight guy’s closet. Humpday proves more interested in what sex represents than any actual bumping and grinding. Throughout the film, Ben, Andrew, and Anna have the kind of onion-peeling conversations that pull back more and more layers to reveal core truths.
Despite Humpday's soft-spoken dialogue and grubby cinematography, Shelton doesn’t avoid the inherent humor in the premise. As their motel room “art project” draws nearer and Ben and Andrew face some practical complications of getting it on, their awkward banter suggests a “Seinfeld” episode if Jerry and Kramer had to go all the way. Humpday finds atypical, insightful ways to address how men get intimate, and shows that Shelton is master of her domain.