“I wanna guilt you so bad,” says Ben (Mark Duplass), a normally amiable young Seattle dude who’s smarting from a domestic-duel wound inflicted by harried wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) in one of the funnier verbal fillips in Humpday, a pretentious comedy already mildly notorious for its “high-concept,” faux-transgressive premise. A decade or so after their college friendship peaked, Ben’s erstwhile globetrotting pal Andrew (Joshua Leonard)—fresh from trying to “make art with the natives” in Chiapas—enters banging on his door at two in the morning, inflicting bearhugs and street basketball-cum-gutter wrestling on his now-domesticated chum. “I respect the fuck out of you,” the bohemian assures the husband, but Ben is clearly agitated by being thought the less free and independent one; in the early scenes with Anna, he employs “I love you” like magic words in 1940s B-movie voodoo. When both men end up at a house party with Andrew’s new pansexual friends, a drunken vow to enter a local amateur art-porn contest (“Humpfest”) sticks with the pair the morning after. The two unbendingly hetero pals will fuck in front of a video camera at a hot-sheet motel, for reasons of one-upsmanship that are consequently danced around and partly decoded.
Director Lynn Shelton, who also penned the scenario from which the actors generally improvised their dialogue, savvily cast her three engaging principals, with Leonard and Delmore scoring the flat-out funniest scene, a slice of drunken farce in which they bond thanks to total misunderstanding. In a halting dinner conversation where Ben tiptoes spectacularly around confessing the porn plan to Anna, Duplass plays domestic cowardice like a violin; his homoerotic monologue about a video store clerk is less convincing (you can imagine Shelton’s index card with “Clue/Red Herring” scrawled on it). The actors’ chops and the fly-on-the-wall, close-up-dominated visual palette keeps the conceit spinning so long that anticipation of a revelatory man-to-man climax manages to build.
Unfortunately, the film’s absurdism-via-naturalism aesthetic utterly deflates when the big night at the “Bonin’ Motel” arrives. Ben and Andrew are ultimately unsure what their “art project” is about, and aside from underdeveloped piffle about the fluidity of sexual identity and “boundaries,” Shelton doesn’t really seem to know what her would-be provocation is about. She has basically remade the cold-feet ending of Paul Mazursky’s flower-power polyamory comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice as merely Bob & Ted, with the result that the 1969 four-in-a-bed rom-com actually seems the fresher of the two. The problem is not the farfetched contrivance of Humpday, but how unmoored it seems from anything but self-satisfied cuteness.