Mark Duplass has a rising profile as a comedic actor through his turns in The League and the soon-to-be released Safety Not Guaranteed, but his auteur directing background with brother Jay is further off the comedy radar. As directors, Jay and Mark Duplass have become better known in the mainstream world with their studio films, Cyrus and the recent Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but they began their careers thoroughly entrenched in the micro-budget indie world with their first features, The Puffy Chair and Baghead. Last month’s SXSW world premiere of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, originally shot in 2008, is a return to that form.
When Mark (Steve Zissis) brings his family to his childhood home for his annual birthday visit, he’s under doctor’s orders to cut stress out of his life. But his brother, Jeremy (Mark Kelley), shows up uninvited with other plans. Twenty years prior, the brothers invented an Olympics of the Ordinary Man, consisting of 25 sporting events — that is, if you consider laser tag and holding your breath underwater to be feats of athletic ability — which they termed the Do-Deca-Pentathlon. The entire event was to decide “who was the better brother, once and for all.”
The brothers have a strained relationship for reasons that are never more than hinted at, but the differences in their lifestyles say enough. Mark, the boring family man, has blood pressure problems and a ten-year-old son who finds him irritating. Jeremy is the bachelor about town playing professional poker, visiting strip clubs and drinking entirely too much. When Jeremy interrupts what is supposed to be a laid back family 5k run and turns it into the first event of the revitalized Do Deca, Mark quickly gives in to his childish competitiveness. As they move through the various events — all while trying to keep the competition a secret from Mark’s wife, Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) and their mother — the depth of the brothers’ rivalry is readily apparent. Their serious commitment to the small, very personal stakes makes for a very funny movie.
Though the Duplass brothers write mostly straightforward, earnest films, they forge successful comedy through characters who want small, ridiculous things very, very badly. The two don’t so much write jokes (there are few quotable lines in Do Deca that would get a laugh out of context) as they write situations in which their characters’ wants and needs create intense comedic conflict, and then trust their actors to flesh out the characters’ foibles. Such is the case in The Do Deca Pentathlon, which works best when pitting the brothers directly against each other and less so when bringing in Stephanie as the straight character trying and failing to bring Mark back to a healthy equilibrium. Lafleur gives a solid performance, but she’s given the unfortunate task of playing the put-upon spoilsport adult to Zissis’ petty adult child. It’s a necessary sacrifice, though, as most of the film’s themes address the tension between boring adult responsibility and the frustration of giving up a more fun-loving life, and the times we really see the consequences of Mark’s juvenile focus on his brother are when he’s faced with Stephanie and the obvious hurt he’s inflicting.
Where the movie really sings comedically, though, is its sports montage. Mark sneaks away from the house to finish the De Deca with Jeremy, as Mark’s son Hunter (Reid Williams) keeps score all the while. The ensuing scenes show them going head to head in stubborn blockheaded ridiculousness and shows Hunter’s growing admiration for his father and his ability to play some mean paddleball.
Though the movie was filmed in New Orleans in 2008, postproduction fell victim to its directors’ success when the brothers Duplass were tapped to direct Cyrus. Hence, it sat unfinished for four years and was completed in time for this year’s SXSW. Do Deca was acquired by Red Flag Releasing and Fox Searchlight Pictures (who the Duplasses worked with previously on Cyrus), who will distribute the film theatrically in June. The buzz from the brothers more high-profile project will hopefully transfer to The Do Deca Pentathlon and garner it some patrons who might not have noticed it otherwise.