What would the Olympics look like if they were carried out not by the best exemplars of athletic prowess that the world has to offer, but rather by pudgy 30-somethings playing skee-ball and having underwater breath-holding contests? Pretty pathetic, of course — but combine the self-serious grandeur of Olympics coverage with those half-ass athletes, and you've got the comic foundation for Jay and Mark Duplass' The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.
The Duplasses' latest comedy focuses on two adult brothers, Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis), who've been holding a grudge for 20 years since carrying out their own self-styled Olympiad, a 25-event showdown to determine once and for all who was the superior brother. Mark claimed victory all those years ago on a technicality; for two decades, Jeremy has steadfastly refused to admit defeat; and their mother (Julie Vorus), ever the peacemaker, calls it a tie.
The adult Jeremy is a successful pro poker player, living what Mark envisions as a responsibility-free partying existence in Vegas. Mark, for his part, is married with an adolescent son, living what Jeremy envisions as a fulfilling, comforting existence without the loneliness of his own. When Mark and his wife return to their childhood home for his birthday party, Jeremy decides to show up uninvited, and after a long night of billiards and Ping-Pong, they decide to re-initiate the Do-Deca-Pentathlon.
That presents all sorts of possibilities for sports-movie-spoofing slapstick, and the Duplasses don't retreat from the expected. The 5K "fun" run that happens in the movie's opening minutes is filmed with the slow-motion care of Chariots of Fire, even as Jeremy and Mark cheat, fall, skin elbows and vomit their way down the course. Later, a round of laser tag is shot with the high tension of a war movie. They're easy jokes, but they're also funny.
Though the film is just coming out now, it actually pre-dates the Duplass brothers' recent, higher-budget (relatively speaking) features, Cyrus (2010) and Jeff, Who Lives at Home (from earlier this year). When those two films were greenlit, they took precedence over this micro-budget DIY project, and it's taken them four years to have the time to go back and edit it.
As such, it's a fascinating look back at how effectively these two have managed to merge the fast-and-loose aesthetics of a film like this into their more polished filmmaking. There are no recognizable actors here, and it's obviously shot on a shoestring, but it still feels of a piece with their higher-profile recent work.
Do-Deca-Pentathlon showcases the deft way with interpersonal relationships that's making the Duplasses two of our premier chroniclers of just why it is that we can never seem to get along. Their loose, improvisational feel and their concentration on the friction points in our interlocking emotional lives mark the pair as descendants of early indie auteur John Cassavetes, but with a lighter, more humorous touch.
That may make their films feel more slight, but silly leg-wrestling competitions don't detract from the fact that the festering bad blood between the brothers in Do-Deca-Pentathlon is no laughing matter for them. They might be acting childish, but those childish impulses are the result of a lifetime of insecurity and mutual envy.
Jeremy articulates his jealousy by being the "cool" uncle with Mark's son Hunter. Mark bottles up all of his emotions, which has both his doctor and his psychotherapist worried about his health. It's up to his wife to speak the words he won't: She's afraid he'll envy his brother's lifestyle so much that he'll leave the family.
No one here acts rationally because everyone's deathly afraid of losing what they've got, even if they think they don't have what they want. The directors, as is so often the case, manage to take us to such a dark and honest place that when they do flip the switch into earnest sentimentality, it feels entirely earned.
In this film, relationships are difficult, family is a nightmare, and we're all on a dark road without a map. The Duplasses, without ever taking a misstep into the maudlin, show how much easier that road is to travel if you grab onto someone's hand. (Recommended)