If the works of Jay and Mark Duplass boast a visual trademark, that trademark would be the “punch zoom.” In pertinent moments throughout all the Duplass films, starting with their mumblecore debut The Puffy Chair, the camera quickly zooms in on characters—like, well, a punch—shifting the focus from big to small, from macro to micro. Many moviegoers consider this stylistic staple a literal punchline for their offbeat humor, but it seems to function more as a symbol of what they’re devoted to as filmmakers: the eschewing of big, impersonal narratives for small, intimate stories that hone in on the simple and profound realities of human experience.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, the latest from the Duplass brothers (though shot before their last two released films), exemplifies such devotion. Starring Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis (also a key player in Baghead and Jeff Who Lives at Homes), the film tells an up-close-and-personal tale about two grown brothers, Jeremy (Kelly) and Mark (Zissis). Upon reuniting for a family birthday, the siblings battle it out in a homemade Olympic event—the Do-Deca-Pentathlon, a competition they created as children. Not surprisingly, this competition yields strong comedy throughout the film as the two lose sleep over their struggle while trying to hide it from the rest of the family. But their contest goes far beyond comical competitiveness, tapping into a mutual resentment within the two men and serving as a catalyst for them to unlock their inner child and cope with the disappointment and discontentment of their adult lives.
In their commitment to humanity, the Duplasses keep Do-Deca-Pentathlon’s potentially predictable premise—an excuse to watch adults act like children for an hour and a half—from becoming predictable. In fact, the droll competition only serves as the stage for a play about relationships, family and reconciliation, as well as how personal problems get projected onto such things. Obviously, the competition also works as a metaphor—an outward manifestation of an inner struggle between Jeremy and Mark—which concludes in an intense yet moving finale in the front yard.
The Duplass brothers achieve such sentiment—and the overarching humanness from which it stems—through a whole slew of elements, specifically the sharp writing and realistic aesthetic present in all their works. It’s most achieved, though, by the characters. Somewhat similar to the great Wes Anderson, the Duplasses possess a rare sensibility for character, creating human beings we connect with and love—no matter how flawed or odd they may be. Their cast brings these individuals to life with an array of subtly honest performances. Kelly and Zissis help the film delve beneath the rather amusing surface of Jeremy and Mark, and as Mark’s lovingly patient wife, Stephanie, Jennifer Lafleur does likewise.
The culmination of these elements is enough to enable Do-Deca-Pentathlon to overcome a slow start and thin story. In a time where movies continue to feel more and more disconnected and bleak, the film envelopes the viewer with its warmness—a glowing optimism and sincere sense of humanity brought home with each punch zoom.
Director: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Writer: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Starring: Mark Kelly, Steve Zissis, Jennifer Lafleur, Julie Vorus
Release Date: June 6, 2012