If life is truly made up of a series of small moments, then Mark and Jay Duplass, aka the Duplass Brothers, have a far better grasp on life then one would think. It took me a while to come to this realization of course. Though many have heralded them as one of the highlights of the current independent cinema movement, I must admit that I was not convinced at first. Part of the problem may have been the fact that I jumped into their canon right in the middle, instead of starting with the works that brought them acclaim.
I remember feeling a sense of disappointment when I first watched Cyrus. The story about a young man using manipulation to sabotage the relationship between his mother and her boyfriend just did not grab me the way it seemed to grab most. Though I liked the overall casting, which featured the likes of John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill and Catherine Keener, I found the character of Cyrus to be increasingly annoying in that Problem Child 2 kind of way. The situations that arouse between the characters did not ring true for me. The bitter taste of Cyrus lingered for a while and made me question what people even saw in the the Duplass Brothers. Were they merely one of those directors, similar to The FP’s Jason Trost, who somehow managed to strike lightening in a bottle at a film festival? Perhaps they were just one of those directors I was not meant to get.
Clearly by time Cyrus hit theatres, the brothers had a developed a dedicated fan base online. There was definitely giddiness in the way film bloggers talked about Cyrus and the Duplass Brothers’ previous works. In an odd way the “how come more people are not praising them” type of exuberance online reminded me of how I use to, and still do to a large extent, talk about the works of Hal Hartley. However, I have grown to understand the appeal of the Duplass Brothers. There is something organic about their work that not only allows them to make budget conscious films, but to tell relatable stories as well. This is not to say that the Duplass’ are in the same league as Hartley at his best but, having now gone through their films, I do see similarities in how they revel in the small awkward moments in life.
It was this attention to the uncomfortable, but humorous, aspects of life that stood out for me when I decided to give the Duplass Brothers another shot with the film Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Similar to Cyrus, themes of complex relationships and men acting like children were immediately apparent. However, the story of two brothers whose lives are on seemingly different paths, which I would soon discover is another recurring theme in the Duplass Brothers’ films, caused me to soften my initial stance on their work. I could not help but be won over by the relationship that unfolds between the unemployed, and Signs obsessed, Jeff (Jason Segel) and his brother Pat (Ed Helms) as they try to investigate whether or not Pat’s wife (Judy Greer) is cheating.
While Jeff, Who Lives at Home may not be a perfect film, the last act stumbles a bit, it was undeniably charming. The main reason for this is how well the directors understand sibling dynamics. This is especially true when watching their wonderful debut film The Puffy Chair and the funny, but flawed, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. The Duplass Brothers understand that what makes siblings so interesting on film is the not their differences, but the fact that their lives are bound together for life. The fact that siblings know each other so intimately is what often leads to much of the conflict in the Duplass’ films.
This conflict not only forces the siblings in the films to re-evaluate their relationship, but to also examine their relationship with their significant others as well. If there is one minor gripe I have with the films of the Duplass Brothers it is that the women are often portrayed rather harshly. Take Emily (Katie Aselton) in The Puffy Chair and Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon for example, both women come off as bossy and emotionally controlling despite the fact that their significant others are men who still act like boys most of the time. Similar to Judd Apatow films, the women are often the mature characters, or killjoys depending on your view, who are forced to put up with the man-child antics of the men in the film.
The rare exception to this is The Duplass’ second film Baghead, in which the women get to be childish for a few brief scenes. The moment that immediately comes to mind is when Catherine (Elise Muller) teams up with Chad (Steve Zissis) to pull a prank on an unsuspecting Matt (Ross Partridge). While Baghead may seem like the odd man out, from a story perspective, in comparison to other films the Duplass Brothers have made, it is actually the one that reminds me of Hal Hartley the most. Similar to Hartley, the Duplass Brothers manage to adapt their style of filmmaking to other genre and still keep their distinct voice. It is why both their “horror-comedy”, Baghead, and their “sports film”, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, feel right at home alongside films like The Puffy Chair and Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
Outside of Cyrus, which I should probably revisit now that I have greater insight into their canon, I have rather enjoyed the works of the Duplass Brothers. I was late to the party in recognizing their talents, but I have seen the light so to speak. Heck, even a film like The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, which does not quiet sustain its running time in my opinion, offered up plenty of wonderfully awkward moments that spoke a lot of truth. Although the Duplass Brothers have an HBO pilot in the works, I am more excited to see what films Mark and Jay come up with next.