In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)
Our families sometimes make us become people we aren’t proud of. Lifelong disagreements, misunderstandings, and ideological clashing can have that effect. When estranged brothers Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly) meet each other for the first time in years for Mark’s birthday party at their mother’s house, they succumb to their worst urges. Mark gets tunnel vision, obsessed over his white whale, defeating his brother at their made-up athletic competition of the film’s title.
Mark is overweight, balding, and dealing with the “burden” of a calm, helpful wife who just wants the best for him at all times and a son who’s less ungrateful than he is desirous of meaningful conversation with his dull father. Mark’s in therapy for his stress and general malaise of life. Jeremy is a professional poker player — you can tell this was shot in 2008, as the online and ESPN-hyped poker boom was receding — who doesn’t care about what he does and doesn’t know what else he can do with his life.
So they meet and beat up on each other in feats of strength, athleticism, and underwater breath holding. The 25 “events” in their Olympic-style tournament are each hilarious, and perfectly designed to bring out the pettiness in grown men who have been at this since the dawn of their existence. They finish marathon ping pong sessions drenched in sweat, neither willing to give in. They obsess over keeping a level playing field. Mark says, “Are you wearing shoes? I’m not. Take them off,” during the arm wrestling bit, after they have wrapped their hands together in a bandanna and agreed to not grab the table for leverage.
The movie grows more poignant as it continues, with Mark grappling with his compulsive nature and Jeremy admitting his hip life doesn’t make him happy. It finishes in a satisfying manner, like a 76-minute stage play.
And therein lies the problem. Mark and Jay Duplass, the film’s directors, are among the most successful members of the mumblecore filmmaking movement, known for its documentary-style, immediate camerawork and attention to small stakes in the grand scheme of things; no world destroying monsters rampage through their movies. But for as great as docu-realism and intimate stories are, movies are a visceral, visual medium. There is no pure cinema on display in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.
Let’s start with the camerawork. It’s jittery to a fault. The movie was shot digitally, with seemingly outdated equipment for even six years ago, which makes a later viewing like mine appear even more dated. When the camera moves, there’s a faint ghost trail of colors and characters’ faces. And the camera moves far too much. There is nary a tripod in use. Owing to mumblecore’s improvisatory nature, the camera operators are not able to plan specifically what to do. Actors don’t have exact marks to hit, and the camera operators struggle to keep them in frame, jutting back and forth, sometimes seemingly on the verge of falling over during the quickest pans.
The editing is a little on the eccentric side, too. This is likely a product of the improv, too. The Duplasses probably did not get a lot of coverage during shooting because of the different lines for every take. This leads the editors to piece things together in a hodgepodge of quickly cut moments. This makes small conversations take on the visual language of modern action scenes, and it does not cohere properly. These scenes should be more intimate. The actors and directors do an admirable job of trying to overcome the obstacle, but they don’t quite get there. The filmmaking does not properly function for the story being told, and this is a problem for the movie’s overall quality.
But that does not mean the movie is not worth discussion. The acting, particularly the brothers and Mark’s wife, Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), do phenomenal work. Their relationships are lived-in. Love exists but it’s strained, just like a real family. The Duplasses overcome a lot of limitations in what is available to them in order to tell a compelling, affecting story, aided by their troupe. But again, it’s probably best suited to be performed on stage than, as currently constructed, a film.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is currently available on Netflix Instant.