Brothers Mark and Jay Duplass may have gone to the proverbial dark side as studio filmmakers, but “The Do Deca Pentathlon” is a welcome reminder of their origins. Shot after their last low-budget effort, “Baghead,” but shelved while the directors worked on the star-studded “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” the now-completed movie showcases their trademark ability to blend naturalism with slapstick comedy by rooting it in a charmingly understated story that’s beside the point.
Although it assumes a light, inoffensive tone, “Do Deca” is unquestionably the brothers’ most personal film by virtue of its antiheroes, a pair of warring siblings seemingly inspired by the directors themselves. Their names imply as much: Mark (“Baghead” star Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly) lead two very separate lives, as the neurotic Mark tries to make do with his low-key suburban life alongside wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) and his adolescent son, while the slick Jeremy continues his carefree bachelor ways. They’re a classic odd couple stuck in an absurd cold war stretching back to their youth.
The duo reunites in an opening scene where Jeremy crashes a marathon and catches the rest of the family off guard. The epic history of their troubled relationship becomes clear when an old VHS tape reveals the brothers’ ritualistic throwdowns in a homemade Olympics competition that Jeremy abruptly resurrects over the course of a family visit.
The introductory title card announces the stakes in a mock serious tone: “25 events, two brothers, one champion.” The playful approach extends to ironic orchestral music seemingly lifted from a medley of sports movie soundtracks, establishing the running joke of just how seriously Mark and Jeremy take the challenge at hand.
Over the course of the movie’s trim running time (at 70-odd minutes, it’s their most concise feature), Mark and Jeremy race to complete their inane competition while making hilariously vain attempts to keep the other adult members of the household in the dark.
A rowdy laser tag battle is only one of the many trials they endure in a mad dash to a finish line with no clearly defined consequences. It could easily devolve into a broad string of gags, but it never departs from the reality fueling the events: The portly Mark’s troubled emotional state and the resentment he feels for the seemingly levelheaded Jeremy. Just as the brothers erect a “smokescreen” to keep their relatives from catching on, they willfully ignore the serious frustrations driving the surface farce.
Enacted with the shaky camera and zooms found in every Duplass movie, “Do Deca” excels at demonstrating how this disarming approach allows the audience to maintain a casual relationship to the characters while growing more intimate with their concerns. The movie never overreaches and lacks any major climactic summation of the events at hand; at times, it devolves into a leisurely sketch comedy. But every moment that could devolve into cliché — Mark growing exasperated and comically taking out his aggression on the basketball court, or confronting his wife about their increasingly dull life together — avoids it thanks to palpable restraint.
As a whole, “Do Deca” stands out in the Duplass oeuvre for the way it captures the intrusion of childhood nostalgia on adult life. Each one of the Duplass brothers’ movies have tracked a different stage in the aging process, but until now there has been a noticeable gap: “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead” followed young people sorting out their early life goals, while “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” jumped straight into the travails of older men dealing with deadlines for getting their acts together. “Do Deca” focuses on the difficulty of leaving youth behind to face more advanced challenges. The movie illustrates two certainties: Nobody stops growing up and the Duplass brothers still have the skills to prove it.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Do Deca” hits VOD today and opens theatrically in several cities on July 6 through a joint distribution deal with Fox Searchlight and Red Flag Releasing. Its breezy style and generally positive critical reception at SXSW mean that it stands a good chance at performing well in limited release as counterprogramming to the usual barrage of summer blockbusters.
Editor’s note: This review was originally published during the 2012 SXSW Film Festival.