REVIEW: The Duplass Brothers' The Do-Deca-Pentathlon Feels Like a Mumblecore Obstacle Course
It’s hard to say how much can be blamed on the timing of the release of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon and how much on the movie’s self-amused mediocrity, but the latest from brothers Mark and Jay Duplass (who co-wrote and directed) seems to expose the limits of a certain kind of realism by stretching them one man-child too far.
Do-Deca comes on the heels of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the latter a light, surprisingly affecting story of two brothers at various odds finding common ground. Jeff is the better movie, by a significant margin. Do-Deca is also the lesser movie in a very specific way: If the runoff of several more successful Duplass-driven or otherwise Duplass-oriented projects (including Jeff, Cyrus, and Humpday) had swirled into a single stream and then pooled in an Austin ditch at summer’s height, Do-Deca might be the movie some avid scavenger fished out.
It feels this way despite the fact that Do-Deca was shot back in 2008, before the brothers went Hollywood. Time on the shelf hasn’t improved this story of two middle-aged brothers, Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly), and their re-staging of a two-man, 25-event competition they first participated in as teenagers. Schlubby Mark has a pretty wife named Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) and a longhaired son (Reid Williams) who’s too cool for most rooms, but especially the ones containing his dad. We meet this trio at the house of Mark’s mother (Julie Vorus), where they are about to celebrate Mark’s birthday. Deadbeat brother Jeremy shows up despite being distinctly uninvited (in the opening scene Mark recalls Jeremy’s delight in traumatizing him with repulsive gags), crashing the family’s 5-K charity run.
From there the brothers reignite their obsessive competition, to Stephanie’s mean-mommy dismay. Initially Mark expresses a burning contempt for his brother, asking his wife if she’s ever really looked at Jeremy, fully considered his ugliness, or realized how closely he resembles “a troll who guards a bridge in England.” There’s something darkly amusing in that description, the way one person’s earnest repulsion can strike another as funny. Jeremy feels Mark’s family isn’t seeing him clearly either, and is often mentioning how differently he behaves now, alluding to the “real” Mark. Even Mark’s son accuses him of fakery, of performing an even-tempered dad schtick.
On the whole, character development is made a function of the plot, as it were, which has the brothers agreeing to a rematch and staging it behind Stephanie’s back. The “joke” of these competitions feels worn out when Mark and Jeremy gnash and flail to cross the finish line of the 5-K first. With 25 events to go and little at stake either dramatically or humorously, Do-Deca feels more like a Mumblecore obstacle course. Cameras are jerked, long glances are exchanged, characters look like us but behave like people in a certain kind of movie, scenes fall limp, and an attenuated conceit fails to hold it all together.
It’s also a good example of the way a movie with an anti-formula, pro-realism mandate develops its own ruts, ditches and worn-down grooves. Not all improvised dialogue or scenarios taken from real life (as this one apparently was) translate to something “real” onscreen. At its worst this kind of filmmaking can take on a kind of forced realism, an aesthetic that’s grating because it revels in an authenticity it hasn’t actually achieved.
Zissis works hard to give us one of the uglier mid-life crises portrayed onscreen, but very little about his supposed envy of his brother, his dissatisfaction with his life, or the conflict that erupts with his wife rings true. Only Reid Williams, ever casting one bored gimlet eye out from behind a shank of hair, feels as if he might exist, if not in the meticulously fake-real world of this film, then in the one where actual humans live.