Tender Is The Butt

By Brian Prisco | Film Reviews | July 30, 2009 | Comments ()


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I went to view Humpday with great trepidation, fostered not by any sort of low-grade homophobia, but rather of art-house malaise. Since it comes from a Shaolin of the school of mumblecore, I feared a film that would be some sort of five-dollar Shortbus or worse, a digi-cam mashup of Brokeback Mountain and Clerks. Instead, writer-director-actress Lynn Shelton gives us a phenomenally intelligent and hilarious take on that nebulous rift between twenty-thirtysomethings who are married and family-contemplative and their single friends that stagger untethered through life. It works remarkably well because it's done up all mumblecore, giving the dialogue and circumstances a naturalistic spontaneity that any major studio would have nervously paved over with as many dick jokes and "know how I know you're gay" riffs as could fit in a five minute improv session between bong hits. Apatow's jokes are funny, but this shit feels real and thusly is really funny.

Humpday gets promoted as a film about two straight friends who decide to make a gay porn, and on the surface that's precisely what it is. But like most mumblecore, it's not so much about a concept as about the concept of a concept. Humpday is less about two dudes getting their bone on than them building up to the actual boning. It wonderfully mines the tension and drama, wringing huge chuckles out of this strange act. While -- thankfully -- a growing portion of the world finds nothing wrong with two men or two women being in love, the actual physicality of homosexual sex is ... well, it's weird, and kind of icky. Frankly, all sex is weird and icky, no matter what orifice whatever digit is penetrating or manipulating. My parents' had heterosexual sex to make me, but that doesn't make it beautiful or natural. And I certainly don't want to think about it. So before this becomes about Prisco-the-Homo-Hating-Slobo-Bitch, understand that I approve of two or ten folks consensually getting their freak on with whomever they chose, so bear with me on this. Humpday really puts thought and maturity into the idea of two straight guys doing the do. It starts out as a drunken bet and then becomes pseudo-macho posturing "I'll fuck you. No, I'll fuck YOU!" and then ends up as this really awkwardly amazing conversation and build-up. Clothes come on, clothes come off, some hugging, some kissing, and the entire time, these guys are trying to psyche themselves into the male-on-male sex as if they were members of the Polar Bear club staring into an icehole. It wasn't an "Eww, eww, eww" situation, but it wasn't just a casual tunneling of love either.

I pondered whether it was being offensive to gays when the film sets up the idea that two men fucking is an unnatural act. But Lynn Shelton's too smart to fall into that trap. For these two friends, it happens to be weird. However, it'd be just as weird for a gay man to eat clam chowder at the Y. Sure, it's just skin, but there's a lot of psychology involved with the skin. The single friend gets a chance to have a threesome with two women. He's getting hot and heavy when all of a sudden his hand brushes against a rubber strap-on. He's repulsed and uncomfortable, even though no one plans on necessarily using it on him. In his mind, there's no awkwardness with one girl stimulating the other, but the fact that it's with a rubber prosthesis, that is in direct competition with his own willy, that makes him uncomfortable. This scene particularly resonates due to the fact that the single friend is supposed to have sex with his married friend's actual flesh and bone...um, fleshy bone. It gets played up later when the two guys are trying to figure out who's going to be the pitcher and the catcher. Or when they stand in the hotel room trying to get comfortable by hugging in their boxers like "two guys who haven't seen each other in long time and just went swimming."

I'm blurring the promise of the film by putting too much focus on the gay porn delivery system. The brilliance of Humpday is that it's actually, secretly, a well done relationship comedy. Ben (Mark Duplass, Baghead) and his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) are two staid and supposedly settled-down folks, newly married, and working on trying to have a baby. In the middle of the night, they're woken by a visit from Andrew (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project), Ben's friend for forever who had been tooling around Mexico and decided to hop a plane to Seattle. From there, the film becomes more about how it is trying to reconcile who you were as a single person with who you become in a relationship. And it's fucking profound. Andrew offers a world of artists and drugs and drinking until all hours of the night. How many drunken promises have you made at a party to show that you're still the same guy/gal you've always been when out with old friends? Hell, I reviewed fucking five Air Bud movies. Ben decides to make a porn with his best pal that would be "beyond gay."

The motivator for submitting a film to Humpfest, the amateur porn festival sponsored by a local underground newspaper, is a bit strained at first, but then as it progresses, shows the depth and intelligence of the movie. It's not like there's a cash prize that just happens to be exactly how much it costs to get the fertility drugs Ben and Anna need to conceive or anything that trite. Initially, it gets touted as being an art project -- which is a sublime dig at the bullshit artiste trappings I thought this would plummet into. But then, as we delve deeper into the characters, it becomes totally plausible. Andrew is a lanky, lumberjack-bearded vagrant draped in thrift store leisurewear who Ben calls out for being "not nearly as Keroauc as he thinks he is." And to Andrew this is the one thing he's actually finishing for once in his life. For Ben, a transportation coordinator schlub already sporting the matrimonial potbelly, it's about retaining a vestige of his former unchained self. The dynamic between Anna and Ben could easily have turned a vanilla versus vivacious -- the conservative lover who doesn't want her beau partying (ala the girlfriend of Ed Helms' character in The Hangover) -- but Shelton gives Anna such outstanding layers. Anna's not just a stay-at-home harpy or a smiling doormat. She gets mad and has actual motivation behind it other than "because she has a vagina" as most hack screenwriters tend to believe.

The complexity between Anna and Ben, how they deal with each other in the course of their marriage, is what makes Humpday great. It goes beyond mere presumable infidelity for Ben to engage in coitus with his buddy Andrew. It becomes about Ben the husband versus the old hookah-toking Ben. When we finally enter the hotel room with Ben and Andrew, it's so dense with the weight of Anna and responsibility, it adds yet another layer to their deciding whether or not to have some hot butt sex. Plus, Ben loves Andrew just as much as he loves Anna, and not in some hyped-up bromantic backpatting way, but that genuine honest love between long-time friends. Humpday doesn't propose this gay sex as some sort of culmination of a dare, but of two friends trying to find that one thing missing in their lives.

Humpday could have been an extended butt joke, resplendent with slurs about "butt pirating" and "fudgepacking." If this were a major studio release, Larry and Chuck would be spraying fecal juice all over the walls, complete with stereophonic moaning and grunting. If it were the arthouse fair I feared, it could have been a slacker Brokeback, with the two men exploring the passions of their forbidden embrace while dreaming of microwavable burritos. Instead, it surprised the hell out of me because it found humor by taking an honest look at the different kinds of love. Instead of hedging her bets on a "are they gonna do it, are they gonna puss out" motif, Shelton wisely opts to make a thoughtful piece about what it means to be in a relationship -- with old friends and with new spouses. Sure, it's got the low-budge drag of shaky cameras, blown out lighting, and pacing plods, but for someone who still struggles with balancing the me-I-am-with-my-baby with the me-I-am-with-my-buddies, it's a remarkable end result.

Brian Prisco is a bitter little man stomping sour grapes into fine whine in the valleys of North Hollywood. He's a screenwriter who's never been professionally produced, an actor who's never joined a guild, and a director who made one bad film. He's one waiter apron away from a cliche, and he's available for children's parties. You can tell him how much you hate him at priscogospel at hotmail dot com.



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