Thursday, July 5, 2012
In this comedy of bad manners, writer/director brothers Mark and Jay Duplass position their zoom-happy handheld camera, as usual, on the thin line between ridiculous and real.
This time, the subject is sibling rivalry. Like Jeff Who Lives at Home, Do-Deca-Pentathlon is set in the brothers’ hometown of New Orleans, centered in a friendly-looking slice of middle-class America full of cozy houses and convenience stores, gas stations and strip malls.
Doughy, depressed family man Mark (Steve Zissis) and his cooler but equally unhappy brother Jeremy (Mark Kelly, looking like an early-middle-aged Charles Bronson) may be middle-aged, but that doesn’t keep them from reverting to childhood the moment they get together at their mother’s house. On day one of a short family reunion, they revive the decades-old competition of the title, planning a series of contests (ping-pong matches, long jumps, breath-holding matches…) to prove who is “the greatest brother of all time.”
If all the Duplass brothers’ films staged a do-deca-pentathlon to see which was the greatest of them all, this one would probably win. Although it’s only now being released, it was made before their 2010 studio breakout film, Cyrus, which pushed their trademark realistic absurdism over the top into just plain absurd, making it hard to care about some of the characters. Do-Deca-Pentathlon has the emotional honesty of their earlier work along with a wider range of perspectives and better production values, ditching distracting tics like the non-synchronous dialogue they used to run over wordless footage of people interacting when they couldn’t get a take in which they liked both the action and the dialogue. The cinematography is still borderline amateurish, the camera often swinging between two people in close-up or taking a moment to get the focus right after pushing in on a face, but that fits in with the sense the film creates of watching something organic and unpolished unfold.
The brothers establish their simple set-up quickly, leaving plenty of time to anatomize their real subject: the push-pull of intimacy. Mark and Jeremy’s lifelong rivalry may be boneheaded and puerile, but it somehow forces them to reveal home truths to one another that they’ve managed to hide from pretty much everyone else, including themselves. Their contest is laughable mostly because they take it so seriously, locking horns with an intensity that clearly has nothing to do with Indian wrestling or laser tag, though conducting it in secret makes it look that even sillier. Mark’s doctors have forbidden him to get stressed, so Mark’s mother and his wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) don’t want him to compete, forcing the brothers to sneak around behind the women’s backs like overgrown ten-year-olds.
The directors punch up the laughs, providing a mock-heroic score for a competition montage and having the brothers scatter like cockroaches when they hear a toilet flush after a clandestine late-night arm wrestling match, landing in bed just in time to fake sleep as Stephanie arrives to check on them. But strategic close-ups and the excellent cast, whose improvisations help give the film a near-documentary sense of unpredictability, surface the love, insecurity, and midlife mishegoss that fuels the brothers’ battles.
Mark’s disenchanted son, Hunter (Reid Williams), and the long-suffering Stephanie go through their own changes as they watch him regress. Hunter finds common ground with the father he had written off as a loser, while Stephanie struggles to remain loving and supportive as her husband becomes a petulant child, all but forcing her to act like his nagging mother.
Closely observed, beautifully acted little scenes, including a series of hushed conferences the family members conduct in twos and threes behind each other’s backs, alternate with near-slapstick comedy, like the friendly little fun run the brothers ruin by turning it into a real race, straining and sweating as they push past leisurely trotting couples. It’s all part of the humorous humanism that makes this a classic Duplass brothers movie.
Written for The L Magazine