SXSW Film Review – The Do-Deca-Pentathlon
Distribution is a funny thing, particularly in the indie world. It can take years to get a film distributed even when the filmmakers are bankable. Unfortunately, this has been the case of the comedy The Do-Deca-Pentathlon from the Duplass brothers, which has sat on the shelf for over four years waiting to be picked up.
The story follows two brothers, Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis), who have become estranged after an athletic competition from their childhoods ended in controversy. A few decades later, they are reunited and given a chance to resurrect the competition and declare a winner once and for all.
I’ve already spoken glowingly this year about Jeff, Who Lives at Home, so when the opportunity arose to see the Duplass brothers’ new-old film at SXSW, I jumped at the opportunity. This is a dramatic step back into the indie world for them, after their last two films, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. That being said, their trademark style of dealing with dysfunction within families is still there loud and clear, with a particular expertise in the dysfunction between brothers. When you watch this film with the sense of its role in the career of the Duplass brothers, it makes sense. It is a much more rough film than either Cyrus or Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but shows growth and the refinement of their style that they displayed in The Puffy Chair and Baghead.
The Duplass brothers excel in their ability to create films that on one level are completely outrageous, but on another level completely relatable, weaving a philosophical idea into their stories without it feeling like you are being hit on the head with a hammer. The Puffy Chair is very familiar to anyone who has experienced relationship difficulties; Jeff, Who Lives at Home rings true for those of us who are still searching for something that inspires us and our place in the world. Here in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, they take on the idea of accepting what we have in life. The idea of the competition is totally relatable; despite the fact that I don’t have a brother I can certainly imagine myself doing the same thing if I were in their shoes. Similarly, the Duplass brothers are also excellent at balancing comedy and drama to keep their films heartfelt but also quite funny. The playful nature of the film is clear from the title, as the film is about 25-event competition, but “do-deca-pentathlon” doesn’t actually mean that. Given the relatability to the subject matter, it shouldn’t be that surprising that The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is actually inspired by some brothers that the Duplass brothers knew growing up. They have even spoken about trying to get them to redo the competition for the DVD release.
Ultimately, for a film with a subject like this, it wouldn’t have been a success without the excellent work from Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis. Watching the two of them essentially destroy their lives and hurt those around them purely for the sake of their juvenile competition is eye-opening for them, and makes me take a look at my own life. A big assist also has to be given to Jennifer Lafleur, who plays Mark’s exasperated wife Stephanie, and provides a glimpse of sanity as the two brothers grow increasingly crazy during the competition.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is an entertaining movie, but it is rougher than Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and you can see some of those stylistic flaws. The cinematography feels much more naturalistic and less polished, giving it a much more indie sensibility. Additionally, the story feels a bit more raw and like a throwback to the Duplass brothers’ earlier work, where one of the main traits the brothers were known for was utilizing a lot of improvisation. The improvisation is very well done and doesn’t feel unnatural, but because they were so dependent upon what the actors came up with, it doesn’t feel quite as fleshed out as their later work like Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which is more tightly controlled. Along the same lines, the story is more straightforward, and I kind of had a vibe of where it was going all along. You can see this in the runtime…as someone who appreciates brevity, I was surprised that the film clocked in at a brisk 90 minutes, and it felt much shorter than that.
Regardless of having to sit on the shelf for a few years, the film still feels fresh. Its honesty is what is most endearing, and that is timeless. It feels like you are attending that family reunion…catching up with the ones you love, until inevitably old wounds get opened and someone ends up taking things too far. Despite how rocky it gets, the ride is entertaining.
Final Grade: B+