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Humpday (15) / Avatar (12A)

Avoid 3-D antics and try something more subtle

In Lynn Shelton's Humpday, Ben (Mark Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore) are trying for a child. What they get, in the short-term, is another kind of baby: Ben's unkempt chum Andrew (Joshua Leonard), who shows up on their doorstep in the wee hours, wild of eye and bushy of beard. Andrew, an artist who has been undertaking not so much a gap year as a gap life, lapses straight into schoolyard rough-housing with his pal, scarcely grasping that life has moved on in his absence. Despite Ben's genuine contentment with Anna, he experiences a twinge of envy at his amigo's rootless existence, his capacity for experimentation. When the men attend a party together, one thing leads to another, and they end up pledging to have sex with one another on camera in the name of art. Bummer.

It is by now a truism that the pachyderm in the room in any portrait of male friendship is homosexuality, whether it's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Withnail & I or The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie. Humpday puts a spin on that by promoting gay desire to the surface; it becomes the text, not the subtext. With the elephant acknowledged, the picture has the freedom to ask how on earth it got in the room, and what can be done to accommodate it without substantial renovation work.

The set-up is rather hard to swallow: it feels as though Shelton cooked up the film's concept without working out how to render it plausible. But if we never quite believe in Ben and Andrew's dare, the film does draw some authentic emotional tensions from the inauthentic premise. I liked the irony that the men's macho instincts are precisely what keep them from dismissing the vow come daybreak; neither man wants to wimp out of the big night, just as both seem eager to fudge the issue of who will do what to whom.

Of course, Humpday isn't really about sex at all. Like Kelly Reichardt's superior Old Joy -- another female-directed film about a domesticated man and his immature, raggedy-bearded buddy -- it shows how a man's self-image can go into freefall under the pressure to mature or conform. The picture is also sharp on how we use intimacy to compensate for shortcomings elsewhere: it transpires that one of the reasons why Andrew is so keen to get to fourth base with Ben is because he's never completed anything in his life. For all these penetrating insights into masculine anxiety, it is Alycia Delmore's performance as Anna that provides the soul of the picture. She's a rational, tender ally to her husband; she prizes his happiness, but she's nobody's dummy. Strong female roles are hard enough to come by. In the fug of a buddy movie, they're as rare as subtlety in a James Cameron film.

James who? You remember -- unassuming chap, made a modest flick about the Titanic 12 years ago. His new movie, Avatar, is a computer-generated 3-D science-fiction eco-tract which arrives with marginally more fanfare than Christmas. It's also the first veiled critique of the West's foreign policy to cost almost as much as the US defence budget. (Plus you get Leona Lewis singing over the end credits. At least I think she was singing. The possibility remains that she caught her foot in the car door and the composer James Horner merely set her distress to music.)

The film takes place on the planet Pandora, which is populated by the Na'vi, a peaceful race of 9 ft tall, powder-blue humanoids with amber eyes and swishing tails. Ahead of a hostile mining expedition, a paraplegic ex-Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) infiltrates the Na'vi by means of an avatar. So while Jake is lying in a laboratory, he's piloting his Na'vi self around the forests of Pandora, through battles with gaudy beasts that resemble a line of Gaultier-designed dinosaurs, and into a romance with the chief's daughter. (You can only assume that the story of Pocahontas is out of print on Pandora.)

Avatar has been in the offing for years while Cameron waited for technology to catch up with his vision. But the film feels deeply retro, from the dippy, Roger Dean-esque imagery to the Dances with Wolves liberalism-to-go, and the nature-against-nastiness action sequences that unhappily recall the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi. On the plus side, Giovanni Ribisi turns up as a cynical corporate drone to provide a necessary counterpoint to the touchy-feely vibe, while Sigourney Weaver, as a gutsy scientist, gets to play a whole scene dressed in nothing but creepers, which is not the sort of opportunity that comes along every day.

As for the 3-D cinematography -- well, if you don't have vertigo already, you will after nearly three hours of soaring up and over the Floating Mountains of Pandora. They're quite a sight, those peaks. Often splendid to behold, but with absolutely nothing underneath. Sound familiar?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special