Every filmmaker has a story. To fully understand and appreciate the Do-Deca-Pentathlon, the latest film from the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, let me start by briefly telling you theirs: Mark & Jay wanted to be the next Joel & Ethan. They wanted to make the next Raising Arizona. But when their $50,000 feature debut investment failed in every capacity, they started from scratch.
“We’re not coming out of this with nothing,” the brothers resolved.
They made an improvised short film titled “This is John” about a man’s existential crisis over his voicemail greeting. While the $50k feature never saw the light of day, “This is John” made it to Sundance and spawned a career that would lead them to become the Godfathers of the budding Mumblecore movement (independently produced films shot with a next-to-nothing budget and crew using largely improvised scenes of dialogue).
Following the Duplass Brothers’ rise to prominence through their proclaimed indie feature films The Puffy Chair and Baghead, not to mention Mark’s massive success as an actor/producer within the movement (he would eventually go on to star in the brilliant FX series The League), Fox Searchlight contacted the Duplass Bros about writing their first studio feature. So the Duplass Brothers pitched them an idea about two estranged brothers rekindling their relationship in the form of a 25-event competition from their childhood known as the Do-Deca-Pentathlon.
As you know, however, that was not the studio film that ultimately got made, which was the Jonah Hill vehicle Cyrus. Mark & Jay hit a wall they could not overcome while writing Do-Deca, a fundamental flaw at the heart of the story they simply could not put a finger on. So the brothers did what they’ve always done best: the followed their instincts and returned to their hometown of New Orleans to shoot Do-Deca themselves with some of their closes actor friends and with that improvised mumblecore sensibility on which they built their careers.
The footage sat idly while the brothers moved on to Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, both of which turned a profit for the studios—as have all their films—and came back to edit the footage of Do-Deca, which they have now released through VOD and limited theaters. As you can tell, the premise derives from the more personal archives of the Duplass’ imaginations—in fact, the idea came from the Duplass’ childhood neighbors, two brothers born a year apart who annually battled in a 25-event competition. Though their studio films maintain the same degree of honesty and personal authenticity visible in their previous two independent works, it is apparent from the start why Mark & Jay chose to keep Do-Deca for themselves, and the resulting intimacy wholly validates their inspired decision to do so.
It could have been very, very easy for the Do-Deca-Pentathlon to become the next Step Brothers. The premise leaves plenty of room for farcical amusement, littered with opportunities to yield easy laughs at the expense of genuine character arc.
As is true of every Duplass film, however, Mark & Jay never once exploit their characters for the cheap gimmick. “Integrity” is the Duplass motto. Especially with their independently produced features, Mark & Jay will never move on from a shot until they believe they’ve captured true emotion. It is why they believe so firmly in improvised dialogue. Unlike some mumblecore writer/directors like Lynn Shelton, the Duplass do write out a full screenplay, dialogue and all—they simply ignore every line of that screenplay the second they walk on the set:
“It’s not your job to be good or entertaining or anything like that,” Jay describes telling his actors before every shoot. “It’s your job to be truthful.”
The Duplass Brothers have not set out to re-invent the wheel—or even to improve upon it, for that matter. Like all their films, Do-Deca adheres to a strict 3-act structure with clearly drawn narrative tensions and character arcs. It falls well short of perfection from a directorial standpoint. Few shots stick out as masterfully crafted, and some of their handheld close-ups feel sloppy, unnecessary, or even intrusive. But these details do not concern them. They are writers & directors of real characters, real people of infallible empathy despite their often-unusual circumstances.
I find myself thinking to that scene of What Women Want, the meeting with Nike where Mel Gibson delivers their new slogan of simplicity: “No Games. Just Sports.” Having seen their entire film repertoire, I think I’ve dissected the motto for Mark & Jay Duplass: “No Gimmicks. Just Stories.”
And as we all know, behind every good story is a good character—in this case, two.