There are a lot of buddy comedies out there, but there are very few wherein the buddies decide to make the beast with four balls. Humpday is that comedy.
I've rarely seen a comedy so funny (or a comedy that's funny, but that's another issue), which in itself is worth noting, and I've rarely seen a film that's as thoughtful (or a film that's thoughtful ...). But what's interesting about Humpday is that its thoughtfulness and its funniness are united. Basically, it's conceptually funny, which produces a unique effect: During some of the scenes, you could laugh at any point. There's no punchline, but the weirdness of the underlying idea just pops out from time to time. In fact, when I saw the film, laughter traveled around the theater in pops and snaps, as though everyone was getting the joke at a different moment, and then getting it again a moment later.
Part of the weirdness comes from the clever concept. The story starts out with a standard dude-comedy premise: Ben is a 30-something city planner, husband and homeowner. In the middle of the night, his college buddy Andrew arrives, uninvited, at his home. Andrew has extended his Kerouac days with motorcycles, unfinished art projects and an inflated sense of his own coolness, and now he's in the United States to seek funding, or just to rub his awesome moto-life in Ben's suburban face.
A night of drinking ensues, and the two buddies somehow wind up challenging each other to make a porn video. Starring themselves. As the only participants.
So it's your basic two-straight-guys-decide-to-make-a-gay-porn-movie movie. Or is it?
In fact, it's not, even if there were such a thing. While the initial movement of the film follows the formula you'd expect from that setup, it evolves into something much stranger and deeper.
The script was partially improvised by the excellent cast. Mark Duplass, who's made a name for himself in the mumble-core underground, stars as Ben. Duplass was better than his material (which he wrote) in The Puffy Chair, and he's matured as an actor. But the standout performance here comes from Alycia Delmore as his wife, Anna.
The complexity she conveys in her reaction shots is both realistic and hilarious. She's helped by the fact that director Lynn Shelton knows how to film a conversation. Instead of focusing on the speaker, Shelton captures the entire interaction, getting a lot of mileage out of her performers' abilities to respond, and maintaining a naturalism that's well-suited to the small scale of the film.
This allows Delmore to steal most of her scenes, even when she doesn't have the lion's share of the dialogue. The look on her face when she begins to realize what her husband is proposing will stick with you long after you've left the theater, vomited in a nearby trashcan, and fallen asleep with your shoes on.
In spite of the comedic force of these scenes, and the absurdity of the premise, the relationship between Ben and Anna seems utterly believable. Instead of the sort of stock characters you'd get if this were a Judd Apatow film (and Apatow is punching his File of Jokes for Horny Teens in frustration for not thinking of this film's central conceit), all of the characters are rich with complexity.
The expected turn is that Ben and Andrew, when they sober up, will be unable to back out of their plan, because neither will want to admit that they're not cool enough to go through with it. And, in fact, that expected turn happens. But it's not simply a question of one-upmanship. As they start to think about it, they not only want to deceive each other about their misgivings; they begin to successfully deceive themselves. Ben, especially, develops a long rationale for why he should do a gay porno with his best friend.
It's a way of examining the character's life, his regrets and his narrowing sense of himself. But—and I think this is the miraculous thing—it doesn't interfere with the laughs. In standard R-rated comedies, some heartwarming/character-building stuff is pasted on and acts as a break from the gags. In Humpday, there are no gags; there's just the slow, rolling laugh that comes from the discomfort of the absurd situation the characters have placed themselves in. And even the means by which they arrive there doesn't seem forced: Given the circumstances, it makes perfect sense that these two men would challenge each other to appear in a gay-sex video. This creates an almost singular effect wherein the parts of the film that are deep and personal and natural are also the parts that are the funniest.
The film's success shows director Shelton's intelligence, and the extent to which the actors thought about the characters. Giving the performers the chance to create their own dialogue allows them to own the characters and keep them self-consistent. The evolving premise forces them to be funny. And the intimacy of the filming style reinforces both aspects.
Humpday works, because it accepts its small size, refuses to pander and finds a way to make humor without making jokes. I wish more films were as open to experimentation as this one, but even more importantly, I wish more films were as successful at following through on their premises, and as smart in setting themselves up.