Nervous or slightly guilty laughter is a typical soundtrack to any fear that dare not say its name. It's not reading too deep to call the recent bromantic comedy explosion one conspicuous way in which Straight Male America is covertly coming to squirmy terms with a brave new gay = OK world.
I Love You Man, Superbad (2007), I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007), and so on provide sugar-coated therapy, allowing a youngish straight male audience to titter at the faux-mosexuality of Peter Pans with growing pains. Best-friendliness that resembles something else is milked for both "ewwww!" yuks and a certain redemptive sweetness. Offscreen, your girlfriend might laugh at skittish you for reacting with that retro "I am so not gay!" recoil to anything that looks or feels gay; so would the gay friends it's now kinda cool for you to have. But onscreen, it's fine to both laugh and identify with doofuses doing just that. Is this progress? Eh, more or less.
Lynn Shelton's Humpday takes the logical next one-step-forward, half-step-back for anxious brethren. Unlike her Slamdance award-winning debut feature We Go Way Back (2006), whose arty, autobiographical memory drama recalled formative feminist cinema, Humpday operates within a contemporary dude idiom: mumblecore, complete with improvised dialogue and genre staple Mark Duplass (2005's The Puffy Chair) in a principal role. It's better crafted than most mumblecore movies. But what isn't?
Seattleites Ben (Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore) are drifting toward conventional adulthood while remaining vaguely "alternative," liberal arts types. Enter Ben's old bud Andrew (Joshua Leonard, finger donor in 1999's The Blair Witch Project), pit-stopped between backpacker adventures. To Ben, this hairy hippie is the thrilling, chilling reminder of freedoms left behind. Of course he's great at parties and an inspiration to worried college seniors everywhere. But do you really want that on your couch for more than a weekend?
Anna might have doubts about that. (Humpday's secret strength is its deft probing the boundary-testing not between men, but within a credible marriage.) Ben, however, grows giddy under the influence of wine, reefer, cello rock, and Andrew at a communal house party the latter's gotten them invited to. Excited to be the center of attention for people two-thirds their age, the two dudes have a brainstorm, vowing they'll make their own "two straight dudes, straight ballin'" video as an "art project" for an amateur sex film festival. Having double-dared, even next-day sobriety won't let them back down.
It's impossible to address Humpday's failure of nerve it is, ultimately, another "raunchy" movie for the faint-hearted without spoiling the tepid punchline of a hitherto amiable, pleasingly performed albeit one-joke, movie. Suffice it to say, though, it reflects the zeitgeist precisely in recoiling where it does. Millennia of territory-marking manhood still instinctively bridles, however quietly, at actual dude-on-dude snuggling. That a target audience is willing to go this far at present is cheering. That the characters and filmmakers inevitably wind up paralyzed by nervous giggles is proof just how not-over-the-hump yet we remain when it comes to real comfort with guys doing, er ... stuff.
HUMPDAY opens Fri/17 in San Francisco.