Straight and Narrow
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Lynn Shelton, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
The lumpy heroes of Humpday, Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), decide to begin their brave video art project—in which these two straight men will push their own boundaries by making love to each other on camera in an anonymous hotel room—with a testimonial. Their camera unceremoniously perched on a drab dresser, they begin to explain to potential viewers the context of this work: Ben claims this is essential because the viewers need to know they are in reality heterosexual for the project to have any artistic validity. This amateur porn movie, borne from male arrogance and competition as much as from the desire to be “open-minded,” as the film’s characters’ constantly claim, must stand apart from any old gay porn, hence the insistence of their straightness. Anyone who has watched actual gay porn, however, will chuckle at this scene’s similarity to, not deviation from, the norm: perhaps even more dominated by codes of masculinity than its heterosexual variant, homosexual pornography, in its home-video aesthetic, amateur incarnation, often begins with its studs discussing to an off-screen voice that they’re straight, that this is their first time with a man, and that they adore fucking their girlfriends. This obviously fulfills the gay man’s fantasy of the unattainable, malleable straight man, but it doesn’t truly even take into account the large numbers of actual heterosexuals who engage in gay porn for pay.
The irony of Ben and Andrew's proclamation is certainly lost on them, who, in their mad dash to prove their manhood by doing that one thing in the world that seems to repulse them most, have evidently not watched any gay porn for preparation—which might have been a good idea, considering their tentative, and ultimately failed, bid for what would have been, honestly, little more than local infamy. But I wonder if it’s also lost on writer-director Lynn Shelton: there’s a lot of bluster in Humpday ricocheting back and forth between Ben and Andrew about the inherent subversion of their project, yet if it had come to fruition, does Shelton know that what they would have had on their hands was just another shoddily made gay porn tape featuring (admittedly much less attractive) actors transparently reasserting their non-otherness? Perhaps, but the point remains that Humpday wouldn’t know gay if it jumped up and bit it, well, in the ass. Like Ben and Andrew, the film seems desperate to proclaim its open-mindedness—it’s all so good, caring, liberal, and careful not to offend. Even its gay panic is tempered to the point of abstraction. The result is faceless and, worse, pointless: a woebegone, almost completely unconvincing attempt to investigate the millennial “post-gay” straight guy, who's sensitive enough not only to get all touch-feely with his other male friends but also to touch and feel them in all the seemingly wrong places.
Of course this Guy, exemplified especially by the married Ben, is also something of a fantastical creature that only a wishful-thinking, free-spirited straight woman would dare make the crux of a feature film. Despite, or perhaps because of, Shelton’s aggressively realist approach—which utilizes claustrophobic, handheld photography and the awkwardly cadenced ad libbed performance style that’s become de rigueur in “honest” American indie flicks about young intimacy—it’s hard to believe in these characters as anything other than constructions. Shelton’s pro forma setup (she sketches as by-the-numbers broadly as anything in a bigger budget romcom) doesn’t do much for her film’s appeals to authenticity either: Ben, married to Anna (Alycia Delmore), who’s patient but constantly reminding him that she’s ovulating, is a suburban bore who feels his comfortable bourgeois existence is lacking spontaneity and sexual daring, while Andrew is a complete cliché, the bohemian bounder college-friend who shows up in the middle of the night at Ben’s Seattle home bearing a gift of a porcelain duck and needing a place to crash. Naturally Ben is seduced into Andrew’s circle of latter-day hippie friends (who live, really, in a house called "Dionysus"), whose sexual openness comes as a revelation, and a symbol of all he feels he’s missing out on in his life with the nurturing Anna, who naturally stays home and slaves over an uneaten pork chop dinner while Ben is out planning to ball the boy. Shelton’s one twist here is that it’s Ben who—drunkenly yet earnestly—initiates the idea of having sex with Andrew on film for the local Humpfest amateur porn film competition, and the seemingly adventurous, soul-bearing Andrew reveals himself as the more hesitant of the two (his own squeamishness first intimated when he cuts short a three-way with two women once they bring out the strap-ons: his anything-goes manner can’t compete, it seems, with feelings of inadequacy).
Shelton’s inability to convince us of her film’s milieu or characters, extends, most detrimentally, to the film’s high concept itself. Even amidst Ben and Andrew’s incessant, and only occasionally amusing, hand-wringing over their rash decision, never did I believe that these were two real dudes seriously considering going through with their pointless triple-dog dare. That they never truly decide who’s taking it in the ass beforehand is even less glaring than the fact that they don’t discuss (until they’re in the room, with the camera rolling!) the somewhat essential question of how each might maintain his erection while naked beside someone they ostensibly find physically repellent. The fact that Ben and Andrew, like most straight men, are so fixated on anal intercourse as synonymous with gay sex, shows the lack of physical understanding, research, and plausibility that went into this project—matched by the sure-to-have-been hideous visual texture of this hoped-for artistic provocation, with its unmoving palm-corder plopped down in a spot from which it would have been impossible to record all of the men’s deliberations.
All these details may seem niggling, but they go far in proving that not only were Ben and Andrew’s hearts and cocks never in it to begin with, but that, seeing as how the project was set up to fail, neither was Shelton’s. Humpday really just peters out to a pathetic whimper, and not just because Ben and Andrew don’t get it on but because there are no palpable consequences to their truncated endeavor: no punctured masculinity, no self-doubts, no tangible identity crises. Ben and Andrew are ultimately too sure of themselves for Humpday to add up to anything more than a reaffirmation of their own confident heterosexuality. And Shelton and her cast are too sweet-natured and good-intentioned for this to be offensive; but they’re not skilled enough to make it anything other than incredibly boring.