Of the various mumblecore denizens, it’s hard not to fete the Duplass Brothers as the grande dames of the ball. What I’ve always admired about their work is that they will take a core plot from a typical studio film — something that could easily be a milquetoast star vehicle for the l’enfant-terrible-du-jour — and transform it through their lackadaisical improv guerilla style. Consider — The Puffy Chair is about two brothers fetching an eBay lounge chair to deliver to their father for his birthday. Or Baghead — four actors go to a cabin in the woods to shoot a horror movie about a masked menace, who then shows up to terrorize them! Slightly modified and homogenized, these could be major market film premises. Hell, this very film was delayed production because the Duplass Brothers found studio-indie success with Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home, which starred Jonah Hill and Jason Segal, respectively. But because of the very low-budget mannerism and style of the films, there tends to be an honesty and truth to the somewhat slapdash narrative meandering that you rarely find in mainstream offerings. I’m perfectly willing to submit to some of that perhaps being my own hipsterish tendency to decant farts in a brandy glass and wax poetic on their bouquet, but if you’ve seen the films, you know. The Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, understand relationships, and are mining indie gold with ruminations on mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and kids. The Do-Deca-Pentathlon continues the trend of thirty-somethings living in suspended funimation, but with spectacular fireworks. It so perfectly captures the dynamic between two insanely competitive brothers, with all the love and hatred that sharing an old wombpartment can engender.
Sit back Hollywood, here’s your pitch! Two brothers created a competition back when they were teenagers — a do-deca-pentathlon, a 25 event competition to determine who was the better brother. It involved such storied match-ups as footraces, games of ping-pong and pool, and “who can hold your breath underwater longest” contests. It ended in controversy, and the brothers have since been estranged. The elder brother, Mark (Duplass regular Steve Zissis), is married with a young son. The younger brother Jeremy (Mark Kelly), is a professional poker player who slags around doing whatever he feels like. Mark is super high-strung, to the point he’s popping pills and doing meditation and forced to avoid confrontations with his nit-picking jerkbastard of a brother. Jeremy’s the cool uncle, idolized by his nephew, who drops in on Mark’s birthday weekend with their mother just because he knows it’ll piss Mark off. Not only does he drop in, he literally comes to a screeching halt in the parking lot that serves as the starting line to the 5K fun run Mark’s competing in with his family and goads him into sprinting the entire way. His son walking away in disgust, his wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) yelling at them, vomiting on himself with exertion, sweat billowing, doughy Mark and sketchy Jeremy come skidding into the finish line, pissing everyone off and starting the chaos.
The film essentially becomes about Mark and Jeremy secretly trying to battle each other to determine who’s the better brother, all while keeping it hidden. You can literally envision Kevin James high jumping some sort of Legoland monstrosity while his brother played by probably Adam Sandler or John C. Reilly or Will Ferrell scream a loud “NOOOOOO!” in the background. If this were a mainstream film, it would entirely be about the 25 events. But the Duplass Brothers make the narrative mostly about the brothers, and even more so, about the dynamic around the family. It’s less “zany fun” and more “astonishingly knife-twisting.” Mark gets scary competitive — to the detriment of his health and family relationship. There’s no heartfelt heart-attack schlock where they high five each other over a hospital bed, or there’s no working together to get his wife back on his side montage. The film’s too genuine. It’s what enables an apology scene to be acted out over Mark’s fat stomach. It’s why fist fights can seem improved. It’s a great and honest depiction of two brothers rending flesh as only family truly can.
The cast is terrific, with Zissis in his usual Duplassive element. He’s like a beer-bellied Tyrannosaurus, raging both with power and impotence at being unable to open a mayonnaise jar with his tiny little arms. Kelly’s looks like they found him under a vert ramp at the X Games, with the hoodie-sunglassed-asshole rapport of those guys who somehow made their way onto ESPN2 green felt glory. He just looks like a dick, and could easily have been a one-note-show pony who aw-shucks his way through the clichéd “I’m a jerk, I’m sorry, I’m a good guy” typical moves. But Jeremy’s arc is so much more subtle and fantastic, and Kelly effortlessly weaves his way around the sweaty fury of Mark. The supporting cast is equally wonderful. Jennifer Lafleur has a harpy role where she refuses to caw. This could have been every wife character on every sitcom, but Lafleur’s naggy without being a nag. Julie Vorus might very well be the mother to both of these actors. Her performance is so natural and excellent. Reid Williams’ Hunter, Mark’s son, could have been plucked from any Disney show, but again, the Duplass Brothers are playing against type, and the long hair little urchin does a damn fine snotty little job.
If you’re a fan of the Duplass Brothers’ work, and accustomed to the sort of DIY lo-tech wavering narrative, then you’ll be a fan of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. If you don’t care for narratives that kind of stumble around, or films that are more quiet moments, then you’ll just find this wearying. And that’s not some sort of “Go Watch BIG BANG THEORY, you FUCKING TROGLODYTE!” berating. Mumblecore is an acquired taste, and though the Duplass Brothers are probably top of their game, it’s not going to be everyone’s yerba mate. It’s a more complex, multigrain version of Step Brothers, sans the balldrumming.