Duplass Brothers are still experts at family dysfunction without any star power
Jay and Mark Duplass get back to their really, really indie roots with "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon," a low-budget comedy centered on the competitive tension between brothers. It's not exactly new territory for the mumblecore kings, but it shows they can still be effective filmmakers with a basic story and even more basic production quality.
Just as they did with "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" the year prior, the Duplasses further exploit the idea that siblings, especially brothers close in age, never stop competing, or in the case of characters Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly), never stop holding grudges that assure sibling rivalry endures.
Mark, his wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) and son Hunter (Reid Williams) visit Mark's mother (Julie Vorus) for his birthday, but only after they've been assured that his estranged brother Jeremy, a transient professional poker player, won't be there. But Jeremy figures it out, arriving just in time to provoke his brother into racing him in the town's annual 5K run. Jeremy's presence brings out the worst in Mark, whose doctors have told him to take it easy, but instead of listening to his wife, Mark and Jeremy secretly agree to reignite a competition they held in their teens called the Do-Deca-Pentathlon, a series of 25 physical events that ultimately determines the better brother, a tournament that ended in controversy about 20 years ago.
In the hands of a Hollywood-hired screenwriter, this would be a physical comedy in which the winner would probably be determined in the final event, with history repeating itself in some way just before it all ends, but if you know the Duplass Brothers, you're not going to get that formula at all. They're experts at setting up situational comedy potential and then ignoring it, focusing instead on the relationship dynamics that arise from would-be shenanigans.
You'll immediately notice "Do-Deca" features no stars or even slightly known quantities, and the sound quality is unusually poor. Considering this comes from the guys who made the aforementioned "Jeff" as well as "Cyrus" starring Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei, you have to assume the choice to strip everything down was intentional, because the money/equipment and interest from big actors would have been there if they wanted it. Consequently, you feel like you're watching real people dealing with a real conflict, even if most grown-up brothers wouldn't engage in such childish antics.
The acting quality doesn't take much of a hit in spite of the no-name cast. It does, however, take a bit of time for the authenticity of the performances to kick in. Zissis and Kelly do an excellent job in the film's home stretch, balancing characters with animalistic, childish instincts who also possess adult-like emotions and insights as evidenced by the final half hour of the movie. Sure, it would be tough for anyone to take their antics too seriously, but the montage that depicts their afternoon of competing doesn't entirely spoil the moments when the script strives for some emotional depth.
Zissis' Mark is a definite balancing act as he endures a really wild ride for such a short movie. He starts out as the voice of reason, the man who cannot be provoked by his bachelor brother, and then he loses total control. He becomes blinded by a lust for competition and ends up taking it way too seriously.
The Duplasses help ground Mark through his relationship with his wife. He lies to Stephanie because he knows he'll never get her approval and support in awakening the competitive beast inside of him, so like men often do, he refuses to confront her about it and tries to work around her even though it's painfully obvious no one in this movie is pulling wool over anyone's eyes. It's tough to understand how Mark could be so caught up in the Do-Deca that he can't see what was important to him just a couple days ago, but the film strikes enough of a realistic nerve to avoid falling apart.
Although the film deserves praise for being so anti-formula, you can't help but feel a bit cheated by the lack of attention given to the tournament. It could've felt a little more vital to the movie than it ends up being without getting too cliché. That said, "Do-Deca" boasts the best laser tag scene ever committed to film.
"The Do-Deca-Pentathlon" proves that without a single layer of glitz, Jay and Mark Duplass can capture family relationship dynamics that ought to resonate with everyone. People looking for something a little more comfortable are bound to be disappointed by the film's lack of adherence to the Hollywood guidebook, but there's no denying that the Duplass Brothers have a keener understanding that almost anyone of good storytelling when it involves family.
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