With their fifth feature in eight years, you could say the Duplass brothers have come full circle, or you could say they haven’t moved an inch. After widening their scope with household names in Cyrus and this year’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home, we now find them reining it in and returning to their roots. While they never strayed too far from their origins, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon’s modesty is essentially the antithesis of Jeff’s cosmic grandeur. It’s an exercise in simplicity and a brief note to an old friend. It’s also their slightest film to date, and that’s quite an accomplishment for such avowed minimalists.
The sliver of Do-Deca’s plot can be boiled down to a timeless archetype: two brothers and one thing. It’s biblical and Duplassian, and while they’ve mined this trope before, they will almost inevitably come back to it in the future. In this case, the siblings are Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly), both approaching middle-age with radically different lifestyles and opposing personalities. Mark is depressed, irascible, flabby, and married to the joy-killing Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), while Jeremy is a professional poker player, strip club regular, and complete asshole. Their relationship is wrought with deep-seated tension dating back to when they were kids competing in an Olympiad of their own design called the Do-Deca-Pentathlon — an amalgam of 25 grueling events and feats of strength testing their endurance, dexterity, and quickness in a laser tag arena.
The competition is revived on Mark’s birthday, a weekend getaway to his mother’s house to which Jeremy hasn’t been invited. When his brother finds out he was excluded, he speeds across the western flats to crash their party. Our introduction to their rivalry is exemplary, with Jeremy pulling up to a jog-a-thon and proceeding to elbow his way through the crowd to find his brother, inciting a bloodletting race to the finish. The antagonism escalates that night at the dinner table when Jeremy pulls out a videotape of the inaugural Do-Deca, capturing the interest of Mark’s disenchanted son and stoking the flames of internal conflict. Mark and Jeremy subsequently make a pact to revisit their past glory, each having their distinct reasons, but they have to contend with Mark’s wife, who is hellbent on “protecting” her husband.
Although Mark’s wife intends to impede their operation, they get around her fairly easily (and dismissively). Their subterfuge is pivotal, because what we’re really concerned with is the friction and dissension between these juvenile adults. Without even trying, Jeremy wins the affection of Mark’s son, who comes out and tells his father that he’s a thorough disappointment. Mark is on a historic losing streak, beset on all sides — marital pressure, an inferiority complex, a fair amount of self-hate. He needs the Do-Deca; his brother doesn’t. And that’s an important distinction. The competition, and by extension the film itself, is a metaphor for their bond and their rift. Taken further, the intensely focused narrative possesses something profound. It’s not about coping with adulthood; it’s about coming to terms with the inextricable nature of family. Those ties can’t be severed, and all resolutions are temporary.
In illustrating parenthood and dysfunction, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon touches on male insecurity and manhandles depression. A late outburst from Mark typifies how we’re forced to digest his middle age melancholia, but it doesn’t really interfere with or undermine the film’s comic sensibilities. It only pulls us out of our state of sympathetic belief for a moment. From all other angles, Do-Deca is everything you could expect (and hopefully want) from the Duplass brothers: their signature double zooms are there, as are their standard thematic concerns. As a condensed piece of feature filmmaking, it’s effectively an expanded short, and that’s fine. If scene after scene keeps you entertained and it’s over in an eye-blink, then your time is well spent.