It's hard to argue, at this point, that Jay and Mark Duplass
have not come into their own. The two brothers now have several feature films
under their belts, and have only grown into more refined and mature artists as
they've aged. In the endlessly enjoyable The
Do-Deca Pentathlon, the two brothers are operating inside of the kind of
story they do best: insane people doing insane things to one another.
Mark (Steve Zissis), a high-strung family man, takes his wife and son up to
his mother's house for a relaxing birthday weekend. Plans for a stress-free
vacation are spoiled, however, when Mark's semi-estranged brother Jeremy (Mark Kelley), an
unattached professional poker player, shows up sans invitation. In his
childhood bedroom, Jeremy discovers a tape of the titular contest, a 25-event
competition meant to decide, once and for all, which brother reigns supreme.
The tape in question has been erased (perhaps intentionally) by the boys'
mother, and after some pressing, Jeremy convinces Mark to a rematch,
re-sparking a vicious rivalry that has clearly existed between the two since
The small scale of the film allows the Duplass brothers to
channel most of their energy into immensely well-crafted characters. Each and
every principle in The Do-Deca Pentathlon
is at once real and likeable. Mark's wife Stephanie could easily come off as an
overprotective shrew getting in the way of the male bonding session, but Jennifer Lafleur does wonders with a relatively small role. However, it is the two leading men who steal the show. Jeremy and Mark are hilarious together as two man-children of very
different stripes, bouncing off of each other with lightning quick wit and very
physical performances that conjure up images of what the two might have been
thirty years prior.
Avoiding typical Hollywood tropes, neither brother is
tragically flawed or singled out as the "crazy" family member who yearns for
acceptance and/or teaches everybody else about life. Jeremy seems like an
obvious choice to take on the "fish out of water" role, but instead, Kelley gives
a stunning performance, turning the wilder of the two men into a weary but
charismatic loner who may just be beginning to tire of the lonely life. Mark is
no less an overgrown child, but his arrested development is made manifest in
the opposite fashion: instead of being loud and overcompensating, Mark is
perpetually wounded and skittish, forever afraid of what might imperil his
station in life, whilst being strangely cavalier about his status as a married
man and father. As the story progresses, we gradually see that the two brothers
very much envy what the other has, a standard enough trope that is made fresh
and poignant by a tight script that drifts elegantly between the comic and the
tragic. The shifts in tone are so subtle that we are caught off guard, in the
best of ways, by the third act, when the true severity of Mark's condition and
the rift between the two brothers begins to peek through the cracks of the
rollicking, boys-will-be-boys comedy.
At its heart, The
Do-Deca Pentathlon is about insecurity, and the hairline fractures it can
form between even the closest of loved ones. While undeniably hysterical, this
film is not a nihilistic echo chamber in which laughs rattle around, hollow and
empty, nor is it a heavy-handed commentary on the disintegration of the family
unit. In this film, everybody loves each other, and that love is readily
apparent on the screen, making the laughs all the more affirming and the
disappointment and failings all the more heartbreaking. This film accomplishes
what has largely eluded American comedy for decades, and the Duplass brothers
deserve nothing but praise for their stunning achievement.
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