By Jay Kuehner

The teasingly if rather improbably premised Humpday arrives on the now-engorged scene of romantic comedies—bro, hetero, or otherwise—that revels in tolerable embarrassment as some primary revelation about human nature. Well enough, as comedy often succeeds by mining a shortcut to our basest instincts, bypassing good intentions and cultivated behaviour. If comedy’s cruelty lies in its efficiency, its tenderness is derived from the deployment of our collectively recognizable errors. Vulnerability, then, is the fulcrum of the genre, the spectacle from which we unbearably cringe or conversely surrender with comfort.

In this context Humpday’s nominal hook—of two straight buddies daring to have sex together for an amatuer porn contest—would appear to have some agenda, designed for maximum irony in which the codes of heterosexual masculinity are rendered as oxymoronically as jumbo shrimp when confronted by the cruel comedy that is the more or less the avowed sexual self. To director Lynne Shelton’s considerable credit, Humpday delineates that perennially privileged, and thus imperiled, domain of male intimacy with a subtlety that echoes the ambivalence of sexual self-realization. Humpday’s conceit forces the issue like an unwanted question at a drunken party, then mumbles toward a rather dignified response suggesting that, with regards to our sexuality, the comedy is intrinsic but the cruelty is optional.

Ben (Mark Duplass) is first glimpsed in grainy bedroom light, locked in embrace with his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore), engaged in pillow talk but too tired for sex. ”You’re awesome,” he tells her, when it appears they are consensually off the hook to get it on, the ironic consolation of stereotypical spouses still in love but no longer having sex for pleasure. It’s a telling sequence for its unforced introduction to the mundane world that Humpday inhabits, signifying a realistic domestic situation and the particular vernacular of the outwardly caring husband and, by extension, a generation. A late night knock at the door disturbs their adult slumber: in crashes old college buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard), a shock of blond hair leaking out from beneath a fedora, just back from Mexico, all too eager to reclaim a friendship that appears to have lost some lustre with age and competing priorities. ”I love you, man,” he proclaims to Ben, gifting him with a wooden duck from Oaxaca while disapproving of his coffee-table lifestyle, the two taking jabs at their respectively expanding paunches; Ben’s wife goes barely recognized.

Given the less-than-exotic domestic milieu and matching demographic, there are ample points for potential identification (hallmark of the hyper-articulate but haltingly articulated wisdom of the mumblemonde). What middle-aged white American male doesn’t recognize something painfully familiar in Ben’s domesticated, behind-the-back apology on behalf of a free-spirited friend who shows up at his doorstep unannounced? And who hasn’t wanted, like Andrew, to believe that the exotic mystery of the universe might be summoned as simply as ritually dissolving a lump of sugar under the tongue? Humpday’s hermetic scenario (and its pinched mise en scène lensed by cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke) suggests the ambivalence intrinsic to feelings of Home (not unlike sexuality); that we suffer from too much or too little exposure. Shelton taps this via the mercurial details tucked into improvised dialogue as opposed to proper backstory, wherein an auspicious hat inherited from a Moroccan princess competes with a dutifully prepared pork chop as a signifier of mutually exclusive lifestyles.

Shelton’s previous narrative efforts, My Effortless Brilliance (2008) and We Go Way Back (2006) feel stilted by comparison; Humpday gains immeasurably from the director’s recent gambit on unscripted but well-rehearsed performances. By proxy Humpday’s buddy narrative treads perilously close to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006), albeit without the lure of roadside lyricism and its implied transcendental horizon. Where Reichardt was latently patient, Shelton—much like her happily bisexual character who flits about a “Dionysian” craftsman house, and with whom Andrew finds an obvious object for his affection—is openly manifest. The two films’ common theme of male consummation, physical or emotional, remains elusive in spite of their contrasting approaches.

That Humpday’s homo showdown is furnished by a hetero cliché—a mutual macho dare in the name of transgressive art—speaks of the perpetual divide that cleaves sexual identities, in spite of an increasingly candid cultural language that deigns to mitigate it. Humpday nabbed its opportune scenario from a real-life contest sponsored by an alternative Seattle weekly, but Shelton mines the comedy rather earnestly. If two straight guys ”boning” constitutes ”post-gay porn” in the minds of its participants, what is it exactly that historically precedes them in their pioneering endeavour? Shelton gradually steadies the caustically funny, relatively two-handed rivalry—until now most wincingly channelled in a game of one-on-one basketball—to the hushed level of a minor memory that, once uttered like a long-buried secret, resonates well beyond the grainy confines of Ben or Andrew’s appointed domains.

”Art” becomes the preferred pretext for realizing more unspoken desires, a rather porous euphemism for the act of neither pre- nor post- but presently gay sex. Ben’s seeming non sequitur involving a formative trip to the video store is revealing in this regard: the merits of a recommended Frank Lloyd Wright documentary are superseded by his aching attraction to the store clerk. In this context Art, like Andrew’s bohemian affect and Ben’s buttoned-up life, is a defense against the potentially transgressive act of owning one’s true desire. By stranding these would-be lovers in a hotel room in the final act—think nouvelle vague in boxer shorts—Shelton extemporaneously arrives at a winning strategy that raises the possibility that while pornography, however bad, rarely leaves us uninterested, art, however good, sometimes does. Humpday reverses the distinction by giving us an artfully sustained love story in lieu of amateur pornography, with a money shot incorporating a smile that can’t be faked.

In Adam Phillips and Leo Bersani’s recent book Intimacies, a starkly obvious but daunting proposition is raised in which, imagining a social life, the most abiding concern is that which follows from the simple question, ”Do you want to have sex with me?” To repurpose a clever phrase from the intent-on-breeding Ben, it is the guys who have effectively removed the goalie, only to realize their anxiety upon scoring so freely. Which raises, of course, the unbearable spectre of missing entirely. Just as Andrew exaggerates to Ben upon first arriving in his home, ”I respect the fuck out of you,” it’s apparent in the end that they are not prepared to fuck the respect out of each other, either.

—Jay Kuehner