BY Austin Bunn
July 05 2009 11:00 PM ET
An effusive former actress, Shelton is a married mother who describes herself as "pretty straight," with a particular interest in the private dynamics between men. My Effortless Brilliance , which was Shelton's first improvised experiment, tracked the reunion of a famous young novelist and his former best friend in a wooded cabin, where there were no women for miles. "I felt such privilege watching these guys alone," she says. "Like I was privy to this secret world." The alt-buddy romance of Humpday might seem like unlikely subject matter for a married woman, but Shelton is the ideal voyeur: curious, nonthreatening, and without agenda. How likely is it that a gay or straight male director could have pulled off the same? "The subculture always knows more about the dominant culture than the dominant culture knows about the subculture," Shelton says. (This may help to explain, for example, how Taiwanese director Ang Lee could direct Brokeback Mountain so well -- and how Annie Proulx could write it.)
From the audience's perspective, one can feel Duplass and Leonard performing for Shelton, taking risks and triangulating their lust through the camera and, by extension, her, their provocateur. (Both actors are straight, so it's understandable.) This dynamic may be at the heart of Humpday 's sensitivity. Bromances made by straight men -- like I Love You, Man ; and even Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake's SNL parody sketches -- can only point at male intimacy, an affection that draws a sharp line at the bedroom. Gay culture has made it prevalent if not permissible terrain to think about that boundary, where it stops, and why. Shelton, by her presence, is the permission to cross it. During the climactic scene -- the longest shoot of the film at 12 hours straight -- Shelton was one of the camera operators. "I was shaking the whole time," she says. "It was just the two of them being their characters, one long, brilliant improv." (Shelton has asked us not to reveal the ending, and why spoil it?)
It'd be an overstatement to say the humanist Humpday makes a case about orientation -- that it's fixed or fluid or that male friendship is only latent foreplay. If anything, the film celebrates enthusiasm, Ben and Andrew's old college try at anal. But it is exploring those boundaries. Unfortunately -- and expectedly -- their notion of sex between men sounds more like rape than anything else, a "fast-food pounding," Duplass says, and it's played for rueful laughs. Quickie sex or, rather, a lunge at each other "seems more palatable to Ben and Andrew than the five-course meal. It's a pretty good representation of dude sexuality with somebody you're not in love with, gay or straight."
"A sticky end," Leonard adds.
It's in the small, charged intimacies, anyway, that Ben and Andrew win over each other (and, one would imagine, audiences): the hug between long-lost friends, the scuffle over the basketball that ends up with the two horizontal, and, of course, the kiss.
Their extended lip lock in the hotel room -- the film's genuine climax -- was "a full-powered leap off a high dive" for Leonard. It was the first time he'd ever kissed a man, and the thrill and danger of that shows. "It was pretty intense," Leonard says. "Mouths were definitely open, though I'm not sure about tongue."
Duplass adds, "I got a pretty good sense of you from that. Essence de Josh ."
But the experience confirmed for Leonard his deep-seated suspicions about himself.
"What I learned after kissing Mark -- " he starts.
"Careful," Duplass interjects, "I'm sitting right here."
"-- was that I don't want to kiss another man. It just didn't trigger anything phermonally inside me," Leonard says. "But Mark's spit does taste wonderful."