Movie Review: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
It feels a little strange to call a movie that's only a few years old vintage, but "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon," which is being released today after a four-year delay, is vintage Duplass brothers.
Since they first shot their tale of sibling rivalry in 2008, Mark and Jay Duplass have gone on to make bigger-budget dramedies "Cyrus" and "Jeff, Who Lives at Home." But the raw aesthetic and humanist sensibility refined in those movies is on display in "Do-Deca," a low-fi exploration of aging, faded dreams and the importance of family.
In the summer of 1990, brothers Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis) created a goofy 25-event Olympics-style competition called the do-deca-pentathlon. The winner would be declared champion brother.
But things ended in a confounding, unsatisfying tie.
Decades later, Mark has returned to the house of his mother (Julie Vorus), with his wife and son in tow, for his birthday. Jeremy catches wind of Mark's arrival and shows up uninvited and unannounced to spoil Mark's fun.
Mark, a well-meaning and slightly schlubby husband and father, has spent the years since the do-deca flailing meekly at life with a smile on his face. He derives no joy from his marketing job at a pet food company while enduring the Sisyphean task of trying to get his adolescent son to find him cool or at least respect him.
He wears the downtrodden look of someone bullied by life and compromised by self-pity. Jeremy also played an important role in wearing down Mark. A professional poker player who likes to hit up strip clubs, Jeremy has a showboat swagger and likes to appear as if he lives a dangerous adrenaline-fueled life. (He still makes prank phone calls.) But the fact of the matter is that Jeremy is not much more satisfied with his lot than Mark, and his detached hedonism covers a hole in his life.
A sarcastic and condescending bully, Jeremy appears during a fun run in which Mark is participating on his birthday and challenges him. If Mark wins, Jeremy will leave him to celebrate his birthday in peace. No such luck for Mark.
The race rekindles a dormant resentment in Mark, and Jeremy, sensing an opening, challenges his brother to a re-creation of the do-deca-pentahtlon to determine a champion.
Mark's wife, Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), wants Mark to have no part of the aggravation. With a pained tenderness, she expresses that concern felt when you watch someone you love engage in destructive behavior. A doctor has warned Mark that he should avoid stress, and Stephanie sees Jeremy's influence as a danger akin to an emotional speedball.
But Mark, undeterred by his wife's and mother's protestations, agrees to the rematch with Jeremy. The two conspire to sneak out of the house to compete in the do-deca, and there is a silly joy in watching the two overgrown children teaming up like little kids trying to pull a fast one on their mom and Stephanie.
The brothers do battle in tennis, basketball and racquetball in a light-hearted sports montage. When it looks like the competition will end prematurely, we see exactly how seriously Mark takes the event.
The crucible of competition leads to something of a role swap, as Mark takes on the mantle of uber-competitor while Jeremy retracts his claws and looks for the soft safety of settling. But the pressure of competition and his own internal anxieties prove overwhelming. It is sad and touching to see Mark crumble under years of unspoken frustration in a scene of emotional outrage.
Attempting to assuage the feud, the brothers' mother tells Jeremy that Mark just wants to be like him, which Jeremy concludes is nonsense. This interaction gets at the lack of self-esteem both brothers feel in different ways. Despite what they have accomplished in life, both men feel like failures.
What they come to realize, in a surprisingly un-telegraphed lesson, is that maybe nobody has it all sorted out. We all battle with the depression of unrealized ambitions. And despite petty differences and resentments, people need the comfort and understanding of family.
As with all of their films, the Duplasses employ a very loose camera, allowing for constant zooming and pulling back to examine emotional textures while giving the action space to breathe and develop organically. The camera work inside the family's cramped house feels documentary in style, capturing the actors in private, unscripted moments.
Kelly and Zissis show a considerable amount of restraint in painting their characters. They don't overact or appear buffoonish. They give the characters depth and humanity, and the humor comes from a realistic place, not a self-aware, jokey one.
The micro-indie aesthetic of the Duplasses fits perfectly for this small family drama where there is a lot more at stake than originally meets the eye.