Tuesday, June 9, 2009

SIFF Report #4: "Humpday" and "500 Days of Summer"

Local director Lynn Shelton's largely improvised comedy Humpday packs an impressive amount of emotional complexity into a premise that smacks of Judd Apatow and/or Kevin Smith. Ben (mumblecore icon Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Blair Witch alumnus Joshua Leonard) are old friends. Ben has a beautiful, sensitive wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), and a responsible desk job, and he owns his own home in Seattle. Andrew, in contrast, is a traveler and an artist, albeit one who has trouble finishing the ambitious projects he starts. When Andrew breezes into town, surprising Ben and utterly bewildering Anna, the stage is set for Ben to journey away from his tidy domestic life and into Andrew's bohemian milieu.

So far, it's all predictable enough: Anna offers to make dinner for the guys, but Ben joins Andrew at a raucous, pot-fueled party and ends up staying very late, leaving his wife to sit at home beside his rapidly cooling supper. At the party, Ben and Andrew drunkenly hatch an outrageous scheme: They'll enter The Stranger's amateur porn competition with a video of two straight guys -- themselves -- having sex. It sounds good enough in the haze of alcohol and marijuana, but the next morning Anna (who knows nothing of the porn idea) is understandably pissed at Ben, and Ben and Andrew are experiencing a weirdness unlike anything their bromance has weathered before. Eventually, they talk about it. Each man essentially double-dog-dares the other to chicken out, but neither blinks. Ben assures Andrew that Anna is cool enough to okay their plan, and Andrew leaves the conversation thinking it's on. Now all Ben has to do is figure out how to broach the subject with Anna in a way that won't completely infuriate her. Oh, and did I mention Ben and Anna are trying to have a baby?

Shelton combined improvisation and her own strong vision to produce a movie that feels light in all the right places, and more substantive when it counts. She was intent on hitting certain "emotional beats" in each scene, so while the actors didn't generally know how a particular scene would play out, they knew what emotions their characters would go through. This process can be dicey in the hands of certain directors, but Shelton uses it to make her finest film yet, and easily the best new movie I saw at SIFF this year. Duplass and Leonard have tremendous chemistry, making their friendship much more interesting than the average cinematic "bromance." Humpday looks at exactly the kinds of issues I'd hoped I Love You, Man would explore, and it does so with a fraction of the budget and no big names. Though the film's central concept might put off some potential viewers, or conjure thoughts of broad, vulgar farce, Shelton's more interested in the romantic/platonic love triangle she's created than in the results of Ben and Andrew's wild idea.

Just as Duplass and Leonard never hit a false note in their portrayal of male friendship, Delmore and Duplass make one of the most compelling, credible screen couples I've seen in some time. You wouldn't expect it, but one of Humpday's greatest achievements is its depiction of a strong, vibrant marriage. Ben and Anna try to be completely honest with each other, but some things slip through the cracks; when Ben levels with her about his and Andrew's plan, she comes back with a confession of her own. Here Shelton's and Delmore's strengths truly come to light: What Anna has to say isn't as scandalous or dramatic as it could have been, but it still hurts Ben, and Delmore delivers it without malice, but also without regret. I see a lot of movies about relationships, and plenty about marriage, and I don't often witness such honest moments played so well. With unusual boldness, Humpday shows us realistic, well-meaning people who yearn for greater knowledge of each other and themselves -- and then recoil at what they find. The film has a distributor, Magnolia Pictures, and will open in Seattle this summer. I recommend it highly.

I was less enthused about 500 Days of Summer, the new romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Zooey Deschanel (aka my movie-star girlfriend). Much of what's in the trailer unfolds in the film's first few minutes, leading us to wonder whether we're in for a dreadful slog. We aren't, but director Marc Webb's pastiche style misses and hits with about equal frequency, meaning that for every sharp bit there's a stale one in the offing. Gordon-Leavitt is a versatile actor, but he does better with gritty, darkly humorous material (like Mysterious Skin and The Lookout) than with lightweight romcom stuff. Though he brings his signature thoughtfulness to every scene, there's only so far he can go with his character, Tom, a would-be architect stuck in a joyless job at a greeting-card company. (Is the movie packed with easy jokes about greeting cards? Yes, indeed.) Similarly, Deschanel, as the titular love interest, has a fine time singing karaoke and playing the pretty, distant heartbreaker, but we don't get to know her so much as watch her in action.

Clark Gregg's performance as Tom's boss pretty much summarizes what's wrong with the film. Gregg is a capable actor, especially in roles that require dry wit, but Summer's script isn't dry or witty enough to showcase his talent. So he muddles through several underwhelming scenes and calls it a day. Webb shows a few flashes of directorial panache: There's a rousing song-and-dance number in which everyone, including Gordon-Leavitt, appears to be having a hell of a good time, and there are nice comic touches here and there, as when Summer seems not to have overheard something Tom said but proceeds to surprise him. And there's a wonderful black-and-white montage that illustrates Summer's charms in a way that makes fun of an age-old movie phenomenon: the lovely young lady who effortlessly charms the pants off every man she meets. Unfortunately, these fine moments aren't enough to make Summer more than the sum of its parts. On the plus side, the movie has a smashingly good soundtrack, and did I mention that Deschanel sings "Sugar Town"? I think I could watch that scene 100 times.

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