The core framework of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon—two brothers, one with his life “together” and the other an irresponsible louse, reuniting, fighting, and reconciling—feels a bit too basic and familiar for Mark and Jay Duplass, serving as a convenient excuse to populate their film with admittedly hilarious scenes of rival siblings childishly rekindling old grudges. Mark (Steve Zissis) brings his wife (Jennifer Lafleur) and son (Reid Williams) back to his mother’s (Julie Vorus) house for his birthday celebration, specifically not inviting his belligerent brother Jeremy (Mark Kelly), who shows up anyway, intent on baiting Mark into participating in the titular 25-event Olympic-style competition the brothers created back in high school.
What ensues is, as expected, hysterical but surprisingly and disappointingly lacking in poignancy, especially considering the very personal style of storytelling the Duplass brothers typically employ. The film hits the usual dramatic high points (the wife who “just doesn’t get it” reaching her breaking point, the brothers making some sort of peace), but it feels more out of duty and obligation from filmmakers who’d probably rather go back to shooting more montages of basketball, baseball, and breath-holding competitions. The Do-Deca-Pentathlon seems like a regression after the more purposeful and focused storytelling in Cyrus (and, presumably, the upcoming Jeff, Who Lives at Home)—that is, until you realize that this movie was shot before Cyrus, back in 2008, and edited after Jeff, Who Lives at Home was completed. With that knowledge, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is an entertaining look back at what kind of filmmakers the Duplass brothers were four years ago, though I’d much rather be seeing what kind they are now.
Frankie Go Boom’s central sibling conflict follows pretty much the same formula as that of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, though it follows it to greater extremes. Bruce (Chris O’Dowd), the “unstable” brother, is so obliviously self-centered that simply being himself is enough to set off Frankie (Charlie Hunnam) without any baiting or manipulation. Bruce, fresh out of drug rehab, continues to pursue his lifelong dream of being a film director with his handheld camcorder always in hand and the recording light always on in search of cinematic gold. (Bruce is scolded by Frankie for recording an old suffering couple at a hospital, to which he replies, “If they didn’t want to be filmed, the shouldn’t come here.”) Bruce’s ever-watchful camera captures a particularly embarrassing one-night stand between a very drunk young lady, Lassie (Lizzy Caplan), and a temporarily impotent Frankie, who’s horrified when the video goes viral on the Internet.
The performances, though requiring little subtlety, make the movie, and Frankie Go Boom’s plot works best when it continually provides wilder and wilder situations for the energetic cast that includes Chris Noth as a violent and lustful former movie star and Ron Perlman in a highly, highly unexpected bit role. Even Hunnam, the straight man caught in a hurricane of madness, gets to ham it up every once in a while, as when his Frankie frantically tries to escape the grasp of an old blind Hispanic man who catches him breaking into his home to steal back a DVD of his non-sex tape. But the performance most critical to the film, and fortunately its best one, is that of Bruce. O’Dowd is probably best known these days for playing the boyish and charmingly Irish cop in Bridesmaids, but as the opportunistic Bruce, he’s more childish than boyish, and still charming, though in a delightfully offensive way. (As a bonus, his American accent is much more convincing than Hunnam’s.)
The film makes no attempts at unearthing any emotional truths from its characters, and doesn’t really try to button up Frankie and Bruce’s tumultuous relationship the way you might expect. It does, however, follow through with the budding but damaged romance between Frankie and Lassie, which, despite being the catalyst for much of the film’s story, happens to be Frankie Go Boom’s weakest element. After the couple’s one-night stand, director Jordan Roberts keeps Frankie and Lassie’s ensuing relationship very tame, basic, and uninteresting, shamefully underutilizing the talented and endearing Lizzy Caplan, who’s only allowed to shine in those first few scenes when Lassie is drunk, heartbroken, desperate, and horny all at once. Any effort by Roberts to cultivate the romance into something more engaging could have elevated a nonetheless strong comedy.
Near the beginning of 21 Jump Street, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, with a permanently furrowed brow) tells his exceptionally young-looking officers preparing to go undercover in high schools and colleges that, in order to survive, they must embrace their stereotypes the same way he’s embraced being the “angry black police captain.” You don’t realize it at the time, but it’s that same philosophy that drives 21 Jump Street, a self-aware buddy-cop action-comedy seeking not to spoof, satirize, or deconstruct its genre, but to embrace its stereotypes. By film’s end, 21 Jump Street will turn its two underachieving bicycle cops, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), into bona fide action stars; the joke, of course, is the lengths the film will go to make that happen.
Though it owes its name, basic premise, and slew of cameos to the show of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the film reworks the 21 Jump Street brand for a generation that was still in diapers during the original series’s run. High schoolers have changed greatly in the last quarter century, but they’ve even evolved since the last time Schmidt and Jenko were roaming the halls seven years ago, now attending high school under the guise of being brothers. Baffling to the former jock Jenko and delightful to the conscientious but always unpopular Schmidt, cool kids these days don’t think it’s lame to try hard at school. They’re college-driven, and they’re even environmentally conscious. The most popular kid of the school isn’t the varsity quarterback, but rather the handsome, anti-sports, Berkeley-bound yearbook editor (Dave Franco) who’s also a dealer in the synthetic drug ring Jenko and Schmidt hope to bring down.
The directors of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs seem like an odd choice for a foul-mouthed, occasionally (and surprisingly) graphic cop flick, but Phil Lord and Chris Miller fare well because of their experience. Animated films like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs excel at embracing genre stereotypes, having some fun with them, and infusing them with energy by placing them into new contexts (a disaster film with donuts and spaghetti doing the damage, for example). When the two bicycle cops make their first arrest at a public park, Lord and Miller circle the camera around them Michael Bay-style as they jump and hug each other in glee. Doves fly out of their limo as the officers arrive undercover at prom, but as they step out, you see one of them toss aside a hole-punched cardboard box labeled “Doves.” In scenes that force the two leads to confront their feelings for each other, Hill and Tatum play their characters as an old married couple, rarely speaking their true emotions, instead allowing small gestures, like fixing the other’s bow tie, to do the talking. There’s a moment at the prom when a year-in-review slideshow lands on a photo of Schmidt and Jenko, best buds smiling together. At the risk of being too cheesy, Lord and Miller don’t linger on the shot too long, and its sweetness is undercut by the fact that Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever)” plays over it, making any high school graduate of the past decade simultaneously laugh and cringe. This type of comedy gives 21 Jump Street a nice rhythm and keeps the film on pace, the directors relentlessly refusing to allow the requisite “aww” moments to slow down their ride.
SXSW runs from March 9—18.