Writer-director Lynn Shelton's sharply observed "Humpday" -- a male-ego comedy about sex, high fives and videotape -- exists in a realm somewhere between mumblecore wispiness and shock-jocular Apatowian romp. It's high concept but disarmingly low key. Certainly in the wake of the onscreen extremity presented by "Bruno" -- the summer's more hotly hyped foray into sexual-boundary gamesmanship -- the more intimate, naturalistic, and even squirmier rhythms of "Humpday" may provide richer laughs.
Shelton, who won an Independent Spirit Award this year, understands one thing implicitly: Few things are as fraught with comic tension as a couple of insecure dudes sizing each other up for a taunt. This means when housebroken, career-secure husband Ben (Mark Duplass) gets an impromptu 2 a.m. visit from his old college buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard) -- a nomadic (read: jobless) artist with a hedonist's grin -- their slap-happy, roughhouse style of long-time-no-see is met with one of the year's funniest cutaways, to a "should I be worried?" look on the face of Ben's wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore).
But no wife faced with a restless spouse has in mind what Ben and Andrew get up to the next night at a substance-enhanced party, when a discussion about outre art turns into a throw down: Could two straight pals have sex on camera for a local amateur porn festival called Humpfest? "Beyond gay" they tag their project in the throes of talking big -- especially amusing is their boastful assumption that it'd automatically be powerful art -- but in the sober light of morning the question is, can they get beyond their hang-ups about where their lives have led them? Soon their drunken dare becomes less about following through with man-on-man action than whether they can stand to view themselves as set-in-stone entities.
That "Humpday" is able to avoid standard-issue homosexual panic jokes almost entirely for something more thematically pointed -- the bumpy humor of men who crave intimacy and change but can only articulate it as a ridiculous challenge -- is a testament to Shelton's filmmaking intelligence. She's helped by her actors, who turn the film's many conversations -- whether excuse-making feel-outs to awkward emotional confessions -- into rewardingly funny, lumbering expressions of uneasiness.
Unlike a lot of institutional raunch in today's comedy, "Humpday" finds laughs out of what is rarely made explicit between buddies.
MPAA rating: R for some strong sexual content, pervasive language and a scene of drug use
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: In selected theaters