It's interesting strategy by Magnolia Pictures to open the movie "Humpday" the same weekend that Universal opens the they're-praying-it's-a-juggernaut "Bruno." Both of them touch on similar subject matter, but come at it from such profoundly different directions that any hope Magnolia has of getting some free publicity in the form of trends pieces designed to showcase the Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle is somewhat negated by the fact that they're chasing different audiences.

There's a game called "gay chicken." Not the most brilliant or defensible of games, but the gag is that two ostensibly straight opponents lean in towards each other like they're going to kiss.  And the first one to flinch is the loser. Both "Humpday" and "Bruno" feel like they are playing the game, both onscreen and in terms of what they hope to do to the audience. And the question that you have to ask when you see several people chasing this same reaction is "Why?"

I think this goes back to the idea that Lenny Bruce discussed, how the more you say something or the more you discuss something or the more frank you are about something, the less impact it has.  He believed you could rob any word of its power to hurt if you reclaim it the right way. A movie like "Humpday" puts the very notion of heterosexual panic on trial, and to hilarious effect. Lynn Shelton, working in close collaboration with her cast, has crafted a wise and mature film that happens to be explosively funny in places.  Would I call it a comedy?  No.  Not really.  I think it's a film that has a lot to say, and it uses some outrageous situations and reactions to offer some hefty social criticism.

[more after the jump]

Ben (Mark Duplass) is a guy who has settled down.  No other way to put it.  He's made the choice to be a part of a couple, a guy with a routine, a married man with a married life.  He wasn't always like that, of course, and he's reminded of that when Andrew (Joshua Leonard) blows into town and needs a place to stay.  Andrew is that friend who always ends up leading you on the strangest adventures, at great threat to life, limb, and brain cells.  And Ben can't help but want to party as hard as Andrew while he's in town, just to prove to Andrew and to himself that he still has it in him.  That's it's a choice, not his age, that is keeping him sedated. 

Duplass and Leonard improvised everything together, and they are both absolutely great in the film, engaging and funny and honest.  They seem to be pushing each other, daring each other, and they're both such strong performers that there's a genuine electricity... anything could happen, and you get the feeling they both are waiting to see if the other guy is going to pull back at all. 

Duplass plays the Jack Lemmon role... the straightlaced guy who goes a little insane at the slightest prodding from his friend... and he's great.  Engaging and normal and yet still believable as a guy with a potential for crazy.  And Joshua Leonard, best known before now as one of the ill-fated leads in "The Blair Witch Project," plays a perfect devil-on-the-shoulder to Duplass.

Somehow, after a long night of drunken bullshitting at a party with a bunch of "artists," i.e. girls that Ben is hoping to impress, the two friends have somehow agreed to make a film as part of an underground porno art film festival.  And that film is going to be gay porn.  With the two of them playing the leads.  And the twist is that they're totally straight, so it's not gay porn... it just LOOKS LIKE IT.

Right?  RIGHT?!

And how well do you suppose Ben's wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) takes that news?  She and Ben are trying to get pregnant, and suddenly, he's acting like a lunatic, talking about fucking his best friend on-camera, and this "best friend" is someone Anna's never met, who seems to be a train wreck and a terrible influence.  One of the sly marvels of Shelton's film is that Anna isn't the bad guy and she's also not a victim.  She's married to Ben, but she doesn't own him.  She's not a harpy.  She's understandably puzzled by his need to do this thing, but she also knows that if she commands him to do something, she risks breaking whatever they have between them.  Delmore and Duplass are really good together, and I like that she's played real, flawed just like the men, and textured.  It makes it that much easier to recommend the film.

Because Shelton was allowing this cast to improv, Leonard and Duplass didn't know what was going to happen when they walked into the last scenes together, and that potential is played out as an amazing tension in the air between them.  What is it about gay sex that pop culture finds so taboo and yet so appealing that it's never far from the foreground?  What is it that threatens someone who's straight?  It's all just friction, only in a slightly different configuration, right? 

And yet just the threat that something might happen becomes both the selling point of a film like this as well as a chance to see what these characters are really made of.

Technically, this looks like typical Mumblecore, but more controlled.  Shelton's a better filmmaker than a lot of Mumblecore guys, and she's got a simple, uncluttered visual style that is perfect for this sort of not-quite-comedy.  I think "Humpday" will work fine at home... it's not a technical marvel by any means... but if you do see it at home, what you'll miss is the crowd, reacting to it, and with a film as aggressively and cheerfully transgressive, that's exactly the point.  If you are going to see "Bruno," consider also seeing this.  In fact, I dare you.  Double dare you.  Dooooooo it.  Dooooooooooooo it.

Can't get enough of Motion/Captured? Don't miss a post with daily HitFix Blog Alerts. Sign up now.

Don't miss out. Add Motion/Captured to your iGoogle, My Yahoo or My MSN experience by clicking here.

Not part of the HitFix Nation yet? Take 90 seconds and sign up today.