When a thirtysomething drifter, sporting the beard of the fitfully employed, shows up at an old friend’s doorstep at 2 a.m., looking for a place to crash, the dynamic between them is easy to read. The friend is happily married to a smart, utterly agreeable woman, and he has a stable job and a quaint home where talks about children have reached an advanced stage. In other words, he’s grown past the time in his life when allowing his patchouli-stinking chum to enjoy semi-permanent residence on his couch is the thing to do. The awkwardness of their reunion lingers throughout Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, as it would among friends who have so obviously grown apart. But first impressions don’t begin to tell the tale in this honest, audacious high-wire comedy. Items shift considerably during flight.
The ideal way to experience Humpday is with little to no knowledge about where it’s heading—and if you have that kind of faith, please go now—because it sounds so outrageous on its face. Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, both extremely skilled in semi-improvisational indie fare (Duplass co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in The Puffy Chair and Baghead; Leonard appeared in The Blair Witch Project), fall into an easy chemistry as friends who look at each other’s life with a sliver of envy. After hooking up with a polyamorous woman, Leonard beckons Duplass to come over to her bohemian pad for drinks and more; before long, Duplass loosens up and parties as if he were in college again. When the topic turns to an amateur “arty” porn festival called Humpfest, Duplass makes the shocking proposal that they could really push the envelope by shooting two straight guys fucking—namely, him and Leonard.
What follows is a hilarious game of chicken: Neither man wants to think of himself as close-minded and prudish, and in a way, they both want to force together a friendship that’s drifting irrevocably apart. They’re also at a crossroads in their lives where they need to commit to something—Duplass to fatherhood and the professional class, Leonard to his Kerouac waywardness—but they’re deeply uncertain about it. Shelton and her cast have an awfully steep challenge in making the “straight porn” idea plausible, but in scene after scene, Humpday carefully raises the stakes until it hits a finale loaded with humor, tenderness, and delicious ambiguity. It’s like Old Joy by way of Judd Apatow.