It’s always important to keep in mind, while reading reviews, that interpreting art is a deeply personal experience. What might speak to someone on a visceral, emotional level will slide right over another’s head. Or anger them. Or bore them to tears. The third option was the experience of this writer with Mark and Jay Duplass’ “Do-Deca Pentathlon.” It's not their latest effort, but a lost feature that was made before their mainstream studio debut, "Cyrus," so 'Do Deca' falls more in line with their earlier films' aesthetic. If there even is an aesthetic to be found.
"Do-Deca Pentathlon" concerns two middle aged brothers Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly), estranged for many years after a disastrous high school pentathlon resulted in a draw. Both men are pathologically competitive, and Jeremy now lives in Las Vegas as a poker player, while Mark has a wife and son and normal job. The weekend of Mark's birthday finds Jeremy crashing the celebration at their mother's house, offended that he wasn't invited. Upon finding an old VHS tape of their high school do-deca, he agitates Mark into engaging in a remake behind the back of Mark's wife, who worries about the stress it will cause him. Which isn't an unfounded concern, as Mark takes to the competition like a junkie taking a hit of sweet sweet dope. He fiends for it, sneaks out of the house, lies and cheats and manipulates his way into a few bouts of ping pong, arm wrestling, breath holding, long jump, etc. This dude don't get out much, do he?
The problem with the film is thus: an audience member might continually find themselves asking WHY? What is the point? The film is utterly predictable, but it still denies some of the deeper messages and pleasures that might be found in this slip of story. At first one thinks the context of competition is the only way in which these brothers can communicate with each other. Which is great, but once the seed is planted, it's not watered so it doesn't grow into anything larger. You don’t leave with any profound insight or larger understanding of these characters; you’re kind of are just glad to see them go.
The film is ostensibly a comedy. Audience members were laughing raucously at times, but none of those moments could be considered "jokes." They were just awkward or ironic moments or funny faces–the kind of moments that would add a bit of color and texture to a true comedy, but that don't make up a real joke or comedic bit. You don't have to guess that this writer remained stone faced throughout, and is still mystified that people were laughing in the first place. Who knows, maybe you can find the humor in this.
With a thin story and profoundly unlikable characters all around, one might at least hope for something interesting to look at or listen to. This is also not found in “Do-Deca Pentathlon,” which sports a flat, handheld camera style with a few micro-zooms and camera movements that serve no purpose except to change things up a bit. The pentathlon montage at the end is adequately put together and mildly entertaining, but it's nothing to write home about. Unfortunately, the cinematic style is just another element in film that doesn't engage the viewer in any profound way.
"Do-Deca Pentathlon" has already been picked up for distribution by Red Flag Releasing and Fox Searchlight, and the impending release seems like a step backward for the filmmaking duo, after their success with "Cyrus." The concept is too weak to hang a full feature on, and the dramatic movements within the story are not compelling, surprising or meaningful in any way. Every one-on-one conversation within in the film could have been cut, as they either reiterate some point that's already been made or do not move the plot forward at all. The pentathlon itself is lightly amusing, and the conceit feels like the premise for a short film. As a full-length feature, it's punishingly boring and pointless. This is one lost artifact that doesn't deserve digging up. [D]