Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Shelton's HUMPDAY: Straight-guy homo- sexual panic meets the woman's movie

Whew: For a film with a mile-wide hole where its engine, its heart -- the desire that propels its two main characters -- should be, HUMPDAY still manages to entertain and fascinate so very well that audiences with a taste for the forbidden and transgressive will probably go along for the ride. Director and co-writer (with her actors) Lynn Shelton (shown at right, below) has pulled together a weird

story with the right cast and crew -- at the correct time in our cultural history -- to make things coalesce nicely around that hole.

As you will soon know, if you don't already, Humpday deals with a pair of straight male friends-since-school-days who decide to have sex with each other -- as a kind of porno/art project. You probably see that hole opening up right now. Why do they choose to do this? The movie provides so many different reasons as it proceeds towards its conclusion that you'll have no want of answers to the question, though not a single one makes enough emotional/gut sense to propel these characters toward follow-through: "I was drunk at the time that I got the idea," "I need to spread my wings and try something different," pure "oneupsmanship," "I want to finally finish something that I start,""Maybe I'll even make some money at it and discover a new career" (these guys are not particularly beefcake types, but then neither is Ron Jeremy). And so on.

Being bi-sexual myself, with a stronger predilection for the male, I must ask my straight comrades: This makes sense to you, right? Don't take a vacation together to Fiji, don't combine your resources and go into some new business, don't even -- since we're talking sex here -- decide to have a threesome with a woman. Nope: gotta be sex with each other. Could one of our "heroes" possibly have homosexual tendencies and be "out there" a bit on the famous Kinsey scale? I'll leave that for you to decide, but I certainly did not find either of them so inclined. And thus, whatever happens between our two friends, given the current level of straight guy-homosexual panic abroad in our society, this hole -- the straight guy's heart of darkness -- remains open and gaping. And the decision to proceed on their quest is simply unbelievable.

About the movie itself and one's ability to enjoy it? No problem. The two leads are played by the mumblecore-famous Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Joshua Leonard (Quid pro Quo, The Life and Death of Bobby Z), and they're quite fun to watch, as they out-doofus each other with shocking regularity. Yet it's the women on view who make the most sense: Alycia Delmore as Duplass' wife, and Trina Willard and Ms Shelton herself as a pair of seemingly lesbian lovers who invite Leonard in for a swing -- so long as he's willing to let them use their dildo, rather than his own equipment. Leonard's response to this, while amusing if not particularly believable (coming as it does from a supposedly horny guy), ups the clueless-doofus quotient another twenty notches and hands the movie over -- lock, stock and two limp penises -- to the female of the species. Particularly to Ms. Delmore (shown below), who is simply wonderful: trusting, confused, funny and utterly real from first to last. Her response to everything she encounters helps ground the movie. Without her, and her strength of character, Humpday could have easily descended into the equivalent of straight-guy hillbilly hell.

Credit must be given to Ms. Shelton, too, who, I think, genuinely wants to explore male sexuality. She has done so, up to a point, filtering it through the scrim of a woman's sensibility, while showing as realistically as possible, under these rather bizarre circumstances, how men might react. (During the Q&A with the filmmaker/actors, the question was raised regarding how different this film would have been if made by a male. Very, everyone agreed.) Yet by using two such surprisingly out-of-it males who dance around literally everything from sex and friendship to marriage and dinner plans (Are these today's typical straight guys? Surely not. They can barely confront the front door), she's succeeded in making her movie often very funny but finally not terribly complex. This may not matter much to audiences, who will have a good time watching the guys make fools of themselves.

In its way, Humpday allows straight men (on screen and in the audience) to have fun with the idea of gay sex without ever really getting close to it. Yet the fact that the film tackles the subject of male homosexual panic is a good sign. Society has been so constricted, and for so long now, in the understanding and interpretation of sexuality and its boundaries (personal and societal, genetic and cultural) that almost any new exploration is a welcome one.

Humpday, distributed by Magnolia Pictures, opens this Friday, July 10, in NYC and Seattle (the film was made in the Northwestern United States). Over the following weeks it will roll out in major markets across the country. I was also supposed to publish the Q&A with the filmmaker and her cast, but getting the promised transcription seems to have hit a few speed bumps. Look for it later. I hope.

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