'Humpday': Male Call, By Kurt Loder

Mumblecore mans up.

If two straight guys decide to have sex together for an "art project," does that make them gay? Brave? Or just arty in a new and pathetically pretentious way? In [movie id="415953"]"Humpday,"[/movie] director Lynn Shelton leaves those questions unresolved, which does stir thought. If only thought-stirring were all we wanted from a movie.

Essentially, Shelton's two protagonists, Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), seem clueless about who they really are on any level. Ben is a Seattle transportation planner — a settled-down slacker — who's living an idyllic white-picket-fence life with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). Andrew is a free-as-a-breeze "artist" who has yet to create any art. Ben and Andrew are old friends with an ostentatiously intense bond. Andrew's been out of touch for a while (working on another "project" in Mexico), but when he shows up at Ben and Anna's door late one night looking for a place to crash, the two men fall right back into arrested adolescence. Anna is alarmed by Andrew's sudden, gabby presence but agrees to let him stay.

Andrew quickly makes friends on the local art scene, and he soon lures Ben to a party being thrown by a bisexual bon vivant named Monica (played by Shelton) and a cute lesbian named Lily (Trina Willard), who fulfills the Sapphic side of Monica's nature. Ben, who's left Anna at home, is enthralled by the easy-going bohemianism on display at this little bash — the pot-smoking, the cello-playing, the endless art talk. The conversation eventually turns to sex — in particular, the upcoming HUMP! festival, an annual amateur-porn competition sponsored by The Stranger, Seattle's long-running alternative weekly. Andrew is of the opinion that amateur porn is an avant-garde art form and that the most radical exploration of it would be a film of two straight men having gay sex. In fact, he says, maybe he and Ben should be the performers. Surprisingly, Ben agrees to this. "It breaks boundaries," he exults, "and that's what good art should do." Feeling his inner bohemian bursting free, Ben places a call to reserve a cheap motel room for the shoot.

Andrew wonders what Anna will make of this. Ben implies, falsely, that he and his wife have an "open" relationship, and that she'll be fine with it. He actually does try to tell her about the odd undertaking, but weasels out at the last moment. Then Anna, seeking to get to know her husband's buddy a little better, invites Andrew to have a few drinks with her — and in the course of their boozy tête-à-tête, Andrew lets the sex-tape cat out of the bag. Anna hits the roof. When she confronts Ben, he tells her, idiotically, "I don't know why I'm doing this. I know it's important to me, and I don't see why we have to get all worked up about it."

The rest of the movie is a slow build to the two men's arrival in the motel room for their video tryst. Ben has already told Andrew that, while he isn't gay, he did once entertain sexual fantasies about a local video-store clerk. ("I had a moment.") But while straight-arrow Ben longs to establish some coolness credentials, Andrew realizes that, at heart, he's something of a square. (I wish I were more gay," he sighs.) So, will they get it on — will they do it? We eventually find out, but the concluding scene is hardly revelatory — it powers down into awkward badinage and then just pretty much stops.

The movie has the usual mumblecore deficiencies: Its indifferent lighting gives it a flat visual texture, and the handheld camerawork becomes monotonous. More woeful yet, as usual, its completely improvised dialogue — a familiar badge of authenticity (or something) — makes you long desperately for a script: Whole scenes (especially an endless basketball session) just dribble away. And while Delmore manages to make Anna a sharp and engaging woman, the character of Ben makes very little sense: Is he gay? Conflicted? In denial? By the time the picture ends, after 90-some schlumpy minutes, we've forgotten why we were supposed to care.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Brüno" and "Blood: The Last Vampire," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Humpday."

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