Moving one step beyond “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” into transgressive sex comedy territory, “Humpday” is a visually mangy but frequently hilarious low-budgeter about two straight buddies who try to rise to the challenge of performing together in an amateur porn video. Although its subject matter and slapdash look will limit it to indie-friendly auds, Lynn Shelton’s vibrant third feature could actually prove to be a fun date-night attraction with edge-seeking young viewers of all persuasions.
Shot in a manner that feels as improvised as the dialogue, “Humpday” nonetheless possesses a comic structure as rigorous as any “I Love Lucy” episode. Shelton extensively outlined every scene and worked out the characters with her skilled actors, who were then turned loose to provide the words.
It’s a risky approach that’s turned out well here, applied to a gamey high concept. From the opening shot of Ben (Mark Duplass) and wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) enjoying a little intimate bed talk, Shelton frames the action to emphasize physical contact, and it’s the potential of physicality of a very particular kind that gives the film its special comic anxiety.
Exploding into Ben and Anna’s scrumptious domestic bliss is an incendiary device who goes by the name of Andrew (Joshua Leonard). A rambunctious hipster who’d be happy to learn he’s the reincarnation of Jack Kerouac, Andrew shows up unannounced in the middle of the night after a long absence and, the next evening, takes his old college buddy to a bohemian party awash in booze, drugs and polymorphous sexuality.
In the extremis of their altered states, Ben and Andrew figure they’ll re-cement their old bond by entering a Seattle homemade sex film festival called Humpday with a video in which they would get it on. Deliriously embraced by the little gathering as an idea that’s “beyond gay,” the project takes on the air of a macho contest that it would be wimpy to back out of; although none of the details are verbalized, each man naturally assumes he’ll be the one to “do” the other one.
Unlike many films with improvised dialogue, this one boasts sharp comic timing along with lively, realistic talk that keeps deepening the comic quagmire the boys create for themselves. Arguable comic highlights are a scene in which Ben fumblingly attempts to solicit support from his wife for his desire to assist Andrew with his “art” project, then another in which Andrew drunkenly spills the beans to Anna about the nature of her husband’s involvement.
Delmore’s reactions to all this are captivatingly humorous, and her delineation of the young wife’s attempts to be broadminded while fuming with disbelief lifts the film above the basic level of immature male shenanigans.
Determined to go through with it, the two men, who are scruffily attractive in a student way while showing signs of sliding toward middle-age paunch, meet for the big event in an antiseptic hotel room; the way things play out mixes discomfort, humor and honesty in equal measure.
As guys devoted to male bluster, high times, go-with-the-flow evasion and occasional emotional leveling, Duplass and Leonard are good company and very entertaining in their interplay. Duplass, who made the Sundance entries “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead” with his brother Jay, has an agreeable screen presence and also plays well opposite Delmore, while Leonard, who first appeared in “The Blair Witch Project” and sometimes evokes a wayward Owen Wilson, would be a perfect candidate for an imaginary Coen brothers sequel called “Son of the Dude.”