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The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012): A San Francisco International Film Festival Review

By Janine Gericke.

25 events, 2 brothers, 1 champion. Mark and Jay Duplass’ latest film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is an enigmatic comedy about two estranged brothers who want to determine once and for all, who the better brother is. How do they do this? By competing in 25 sporting challenges over the span of one weekend. In 1990, the brothers founded the Do-Deca, but the final event­–a breath-holding contest–was disrupted before a champion was declared. In this film, the Duplass brothers show us that there’s no better way to reconnect with your brother than to completely beat the crap out of him.

Do-Deca stars Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly as Mark and Jeremy, long estranged brothers who reunite during Mark’s birthday weekend at their mother’s home. Mark is joined by his wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) and their son Hunter (Reid Williams). We get a sense of the brothers’ relationship from the very first scene, with Mark describing how Jeremy would always threaten to defecate in the tub when they were kids, and one day he finally did. Mark is of course in the tub, talking to his wife, as he recounts this story. We also see Jeremy playing poker and then hanging out at a strip club. While getting a lap dance, a nonplussed Jeremy asks the dancer if he should go to his brother’s birthday party—Jeremy is so clearly bored that this scene paints the perfect picture of a man with no one and nothing in his life. We see just how different these guys really are.

Mark and his wife decide to go to his mother’s house, completely convinced that Jeremy will not show up. First on their birthday itinerary is a fun run for Mark, Stephanie and Hunter. Of course, seconds into the race, Jeremy comes running up, turning the race into a two-man event, and stoking the rivalry all over again. Over the course of the next day, Jeremy manages to convince his brother that they need to finish the competition. After an all night game of pool and Ping-Pong, Mark finally gives in and the brothers try to figure out a way to complete the competition without Mark’s watchful wife finding out what they are doing.

A lot of words can be used to describe Do-Deca Pentathlon—brutal, hilarious, genuine, and heartfelt. These words could be used to describe other Duplass brothers’ films. (In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge fan.) They consistently make entertaining pictures with warm fuzzy hearts that revolve around the complicated but familiar relationships between siblings, parents, and significant others. Their first feature film Puffy Chair (2005) deals with a man (Mark Duplass) coming to terms with his relationships with his brother (Rhett Wilkins) and girlfriend (Katie Aselton). Their 2010 film, Cyrus, shows the rivalry between a man (John C. Reilly) and his new girlfriend’s son (Jonah Hill). Last year’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home also explored the complex relationship between two brothers (Jason Segal and Ed Helms) who wind up bonding in the most unexpected way. You could say that the Duplass brothers may themselves have a complicated relationship but, if their films are any indication, it’s a warm-and-complicated relationship. Do-Deca was actually filmed before Cyrus, in 2008, but is just now getting a release. In my opinion, Do-Deca fits in nicely, almost creating a seamless trilogy, with Cyrus and Jeff.

The Duplass brothers give their actors a lot of freedom when filming. Not only letting them wander around during scenes, but also encouraging improvisation. Because of their style of filmmaking, they are able to capture some real and quite hilarious moments. It’s as if they are following real people, just waiting for something to happen. Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly are terrific as the dueling brothers, but you can also see the testosterone in the air throughout the film. These guys seem like they really got into the competition between these two brothers. We also get the sense that each brother is envious of what the other one has. Mark sees Jeremey’s freedom—he has no family and can come and go as he pleases—as something that is missing from his own life. Jeremy sees Mark’s family, and maybe wishes that he had a family to come home to. Stuck in the middle of it all is Mark’s wife Stephanie, who on the one hand wants her husband to be happy and have fun on his birthday weekend, but on the other hand, wants to look out for him, and his health, by keeping him from competing in the Do-Deca. Mark is also a little envious of Jeremy’s relationship with his son. Hunter calls his dad fake and wonders why he isn’t fun anymore. Because Jeremy and Hunter have such a close relationship, Jeremy is able to convince Hunter that his dad isn’t such a bad guy, that he was once a prankster and pretty cool. Through the Do-Deca, Mark and Hunter are also able to bond, since Hunter helps them try and keep the competition under wraps.

It’s a lot of fun to see these guys not only beat the crap out of each other, but also thoroughly enjoy themselves in the process. They drag the entire family out for a game of laser tag, hoping to take everyone out so that they can have a one-on-one competition. And, as with any film dealing with sports, we get the perfect competition montage, as well as an epic arm wrestling scene. The camera holds tight on both Mark and Jeremy’s faces throughout the scene, quickly cutting back and forth. Each brother strains to keep from losing. It’s a hilarious scene that makes you wonder if these guys are even acting.

Do-Deca-Pentathlon is a must-see film with a tremendously talented cast. I’d love to see these actors in more roles! The film also feels very intimate, mainly because it was filmed in New Orleans, from which Jay and Mark Duplass and Steve Z. all hail. The brothers have also previously worked with Steve, Jennifer and Mark. This seems like one great group of friends and it shows on the screen. It also happens that the story is based on two brothers that Mark and Jay knew in high school who actually came up with their own competition, much like in the film. Do-Deca is a small film, but it more than delivers. Any fan of the Duplass brothers will truly be missing out if they let this one pass them by.

Do-Deca Pentathlon played at this year’s 55th San Francisco International Film Festival.

Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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