Humpday gets Mumblecore

  • Posted by
  • on July 31, 2009
  • Filed in: Film

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Over the past near-decade a film movement dubbed “mumblecore” has sprouted out from the nooks and crannies of independent film.  It gets its name from the rambling mumble of real life moments. The defining trait is a naturalistic approach to character. Digital cameras. Non-actors.

Typically the films are heavy on conversational-improvisation and deal almost-exclusively with offering generous respect toward everyday events. The noble intent at play with many of these films is a pursuit of honesty. Since many lack high concepts (and the obese-budgets that those often entail) the filmmakers who dabble in mumble often hold no obligation to the studio system and can make a film of this kind with nothing more than a hearty camera and a willing group of friends.

As a result of the relative ease at which a mumblecore film can be produced they have been churned out at a fairly rapid clip since the term was coined.  The great/terrible thing  about a film movement like this is that the honesty can play both ways.  I can think of particular scenes that left me awed by the root emotions captured with beauty and subtlety and yet I’ve also been incredibly bored by similar scenes.  Since the films are often nothing more (on a plot level at least) than spending time with a character for 90 minutes enjoyment/enlightenment really depends on how engaging that character is.

If the lead is hilarious then I’ll leave the movie feeling as though I hung out with a hilarious fellow and I would declare the experience a triumph.  If the lead is mopey and painfully self-conscious I might leave the movie feeling slightly annoyed (despite how honestly his mopeyness is portrayed) and I would likely forget the movie exists. I don’t remember disliking many mumblecore films. I just don’t remember the ones I didn’t like.

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One touchstone of quality I’ve found when navigating this mini-genre is the presence of Mark Duplass. He’s the co-writer/co-director of The Puffy Chair and Baghead and has popped up in a handful of others. I was quickly engaged by his presence when I first saw The Puffy Chair and he was one of the highlights of Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs. And the Duplass indicator has held strong after his showing in Lynn Shelton’s Humpday.

Humpday follows a couple old friends (Duplass and Joshua Leonard) who have followed different life paths. Duplass has settled down into a comfortable marriage with a strong possibility of breeding and Leonard has galavanted across borders and different philosophies.

The one line premise: in a fit of drunken bohemia two men agree to have sex with one another for the sake of radical art.

In the hands of a FOX or a UNIVERSAL this premise could have been a tentpole gross-out R-rated comedy. And it might have been funny. In the deft hands of Shelton, order Leonard and Duplass it was hilarious. The pace felt brisk, buy more about the dialogue snapped when it should’ve snapped and lingered when it should have lingered. The premise proved fertile ground for the trademark mumblecore subtlety.

Aside from a simple positive recommendation I would like to highlight how beautifully the creative team pulls off the tenuous feat of turning a potential act of homosexuality into an incredibly macho stand-off. The chemistry between Leonard and Duplass is beautiful and Shelton did a fantastic job of editing a giant mound of raw improvised footage into a lean and hilarious film that didn’t have to rely on its naturalism as a reason to exist. It had something to say, and it just so happened that it articulated these thoughts naturalistically.

Humpday opens in wider release today.

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