Real Drama: The Duplass Brothers and High Stakes, Epically Small Sibling Rivalries

7:45 AM PST 07/06/2012 by Jordan Zakarin
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The indie auteurs defy Hollywood conventions again as they bring a real-life story to screen in "The Do-Deca Pentathlon."

This summer, dictators will run mad, corrupt governments will seek to take down steel-jawed escape artists, New York City will come under attack no fewer than three times, and Earth will be the target of hostile alien takeover on multiple occasions. So how is it that a game of pingpong played between two out-of-shape, middle-aged men could provide the most tension-fraught moments of the season?

“The stakes are pretty f---ing small in our lives, but they don't feel small to us,” Jay Duplass says, speaking in terms both personal and general, as he works to explain the unexpected amount of hand-wringing that comes with watching in The Do-Deca Pentathlon. The film is his second of 2012 with his brother Mark, and where hot-weather blockbusters feature a hail of bullets, missiles and lasers, the New Orleans natives turn knuckles white with the existential problems that plague even the poor schlubs without superpowers.

“We have a name for it right now, which we call the epically small,” Duplass says. “Honestly, one of the worst things that happened in one of our movies is that somebody gets their feelings hurt real bad, by someone that they love a lot. And to us, that's pretty much the big stuff that happens to us. Not that people haven't died and stuff like that, but when people die, they die and then you get sad and then you get over it, but the pains of being in a relationship and what happened, that stuff lasts forever, man.”

Film Review: The Do-Deca Pentathlon

The film, which was shot in 2008 and shelved until now so the duo could make the semi-indies Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, provides both an historical document with which to compare the two subsequent pictures and an affirmation of the tiny, personal and above all real approach they take to storytelling.

Do-Deca features Steve Zissis as Mark, a depressed, thirtysomething potbellied sadsack who is sandbagged by his estranged brother Jeremy (Mark Kelly) at their mother’s house at his birthday celebration. There, they trade taunts and indignation for a day before finally digging down to the core of their anger: the 25-event backyard Olympics in which they battled each other in competitions such as breath holding and pool, and which they bitterly ended in dispute 20 years prior.

Underscoring the filmmakers’ emphasis on authenticity is the fact that the entire idea came from the Duplasses’ real childhood next-door neighbors; the games may have been silly, but they never left the filmmakers’ memories, even two decades later.

The friction between Mark and Jeremy is a crucial, fictional addition meant to give the film conflict. The characters’ respective bitterness has been fomented by jealousies over the other’s divergent path -- Mark has a family and steady job, while Jeremy has a poker career and freedom -- and the replay of their suburban Olympics launches all of the suppressed anger to the surface like a domestic volcano stoked by one too many passive-aggressive dinner comments.

Luckily, the Duplasses had complete creative license; otherwise, creating those sorts of flawed characters would have been awkward.

“It's not like they were interested in holding on to their life rights in any way or anything like that,” Jay says of his childhood friends. “They were just psyched that we were making a movie about some weird shit that they did and kind of getting a kick at how everyone at work was like, 'Why would anyone ever make a movie about you?' Just f---ing with them the whole time. It was all pretty playful and up and up, and I am in particular really close with one of the brothers, so he knew that we would handle it well.”

If there’s one bankable bet to make on a Duplass film, it’s that the pair will delicately handle the friction between two flawed and scarred brothers. Born four years apart, they say they never felt the primal sting of sibling rivalry while growing up, but Mark and Jay nonetheless have tackled brotherly conflict in three of their five full-length features.

“It's just a great mystery,” Mark says, “It always makes you wonder: What is it that broke them apart? And for us, we're so close, we never dealt with that necessarily, so it's fascinating to us, I guess. And from, quite honestly, from a strictly filmmaking standpoint, it's kind of fun to create a big, big divide and see how you can get two people to come together a little bit.”

In their first film, 2005’s The Puffy Chair, two brothers take an ill-fated road trip to deliver a recliner to their father; in last year's Jeff, Who Lives at Home, a dreamy stoner clashes with his uptight retail employee brother as they hunt down destiny and a bottle of wood glue. Even 2010's Cyrus featured the battle for a woman’s full attention, albeit between her new boyfriend and her son.

Again, the fate of Earth is never on the line, but the trust is that the audience can identify with the Duplasses’ characters far more than a billionaire in a bat suit. Still, bowing to the realities of box-office economics, and the bonanzas scored by such tentpole pictures, the pair went for an alternate distribution method for Do-Deca, already releasing it on iTunes and video on demand a week before it hit theaters.

“Every brother we've ever known has played sports against each other, and every woman we've ever known has been married to a guy with a weird relationship with his brother that she has to mitigate,” Mark says. “And it is an inherently relatable idea, and that was why we kind of partnered up and said: 'You know what? Let's not just take this to the 12 art house theaters that want to play it; let's put this on VOD now and let everyone have a chance to see it.'”

It was a decision born of experience, as Jay laments releasing festival favorites, such as The Puffy Chair and 2008’s Baghead, in 100-150 art house theaters, just to watch them fall out of projection a few weeks later.

“We just want as many people as possible to see the movie because we love the movie," he says, adding with a laugh, "and the Olympics are coming out, and that's f---ing funny."

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin

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