The second film by Mark and Jay Duplass in as many years to address the question of fraternal rivalry, The Do-Deca Pentathlon reunites long-estranged sibs Mark (Steve Zissis), a depressed family man with a wife and early teenage son, and Jeremy (Mark Kelly), a bachelor professional poker player, at their mother’s house on the occasion of the former’s birthday. The fragile middle-aged male ego is indulged, massaged, and, finally, critiqued. But mostly the latest from the Duplass brothers is too invested in the regressive, man-childish antics of its characters to move much beyond a winking tolerance of their behavior.
The filmmakers prepare us early on for what to expect, as Mark sits in the bath explaining to his wife how his brother took a shit in the tub when they were bathing together as kids. As the filmmaking duo’s trademark intentionally ugly, direct-cinema-aping camera lurches and pans for no apparent reason, the film establishes both the juvenile nature of the sibling rivalry and the movie’s willingness to indulge in the uglier aspects of human behavior.
When Mark, his wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), and long-haired son arrive at their familial home, the uninvited Jeremy makes an unexpected visit, joining the family in the middle of a 5K “fun run” and immediately challenging his brother to an intensive one-on-one competition. There will be plenty more competition before the trip is over as the sibs decide to recreate the 25-event Olympic-style contest (the do-deca-pentathlon of the title) that they first engaged in two decades earlier as teens. At stake isn’t only the stated goal of being the “best brother,” but a chance to symbolically overcome the clear dissatisfactions of the men’s lives, disappointments that they project onto each other. So, while Mark longs to get away from the constraints of family life, unhappy Jeremy aches for some sort of stability.
The film also indulges that old macho standby in which brotherly love can only manifest itself in competition, men only able to relate to each other in paradoxical ways. None of this is much fun—and despite the film’s ultimate critique of the men’s behavior, there’s the sense that watching the individual events (laser tag, long jump, holding one’s breath underwater) is supposed to at least provide the viewer with some pleasure, even if it’s only to laugh at the mock heroic presentation and ironic soundtrack with which the Duplasses endow these proceedings.
Ultimately, the competition is revealed as a sort of obsessive madness, but not before being mightily indulged by the directors, whose film has so much invested in this rivalry that it has to endow it with a certain legitimacy. So, while Stephanie continually upbraids her husband in eminently reasonable terms, there’s always the sense that she’s a bit of a castrating nag. And being a cool dad to his son rather than a “lame” middle-aged stodge is posited as a valid reason for Mark to partake in the do-deca. Yes, the Duplass boys can’t ultimately embrace such potentially destructive behavior as blowing off a birthday weekend with the family for a round of unhealthily intense fraternal competition, but they seem to think that the hang-ups of middle-aged men and their fractured sense of their own masculinity is inherently more interesting than it is. Still, bathed in their choppy, momentum-killing camerawork and eye-piercing cutting, and marked by an inability to quite move past the boys-will-be-boys dictates that seem so central to the pair’s work in general, the brother’s latest scans more like an endurance test, the viewing of which feels not too different from Mark and Jeremy’s desperate attempt to hold their breath underwater for as long as humanly possible.