University of Texas grads Jay and Mark Duplass have written, directed, produced, and acted in more than a dozen films in seven years. Are they having too much fun?
If you want to make yourself feel lousy about your general lack of productivity, consider the résumés of Jay and Mark Duplass, the University of Texas grads turned budding Hollywood impresarios who can’t seem to stop working.
At last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, the brothers premiered their fourth feature film in seven years, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, an eccentric fable about a hopeless layabout (Jason Segel) and his cuckolded brother (Ed Helms), which opened in March and is now available on DVD. They turned up at Sundance in January, as executive producers of Safety Not Guaranteed, a comedy starring Mark (above, right) as an unstable man who claims to have access to a time machine; it opened in limited release last month. Mark was also there with a horror film he wrote, Black Rock, directed by and starring his wife, Katie Aselton; it’s expected to hit theaters this fall. Then in March, at South by Southwest, the Duplasses premiered their fifth feature, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, a comedy about an epically destructive sibling rivalry, which hits theaters this month. Sick of them yet? If not, Mark can be seen in two other new releases: Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us, opposite Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks, and Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, co-starring Emily Blunt.
In terms of sheer volume, all of this is highly admirable, even if the brothers have turned out their share of duds. Indeed, for all the hype surrounding the storied Austin film scene, the Duplasses are among the very few filmmakers from the city to establish Hollywood-level careers since the halcyon days of Linklater, Rodriguez, and Judge. (Both brothers are now based in Los Angeles, though Jay spent a portion of last year in Austin.) What’s really striking about the duo, though, is the through-line that has steadily become evident in their work. Like John Updike in his Rabbit novels, the Duplass brothers work wry and apparently limitless variations on a commonplace theme: the anxiety of middle-class white guys desperate for something to grab on to as the world whooshes past. These aren’t pandering, self-consciously vulgar comedies of male malaise, as seems to be the rage these days. The men we meet in the Duplasses’ films are human-scaled and endearingly neurotic, and their panic twists and turns in on itself as they try to answer what might be an unanswerable question: How does a generation of kids who grew up in peacetime and prosperity, encouraged to follow their bliss, go about developing a backbone?
Born in New Orleans, Jay, 39, and Mark, 35, first gained notice for a series of quirky short films they made in Austin after graduating from UT (Jay completed an MFA in film; Mark studied the subject as an undergrad). Their feature debut, The Puffy Chair, which premiered at Sundance in 2005, followed two brothers journeying cross-country to pick up and deliver an easy chair for their father’s birthday. Created partly through improvisation, with a handheld camera that zigged and zagged to track the action, the film showed an impressive grasp of screwball farce, in which one mishap leads to another until all hell breaks loose. They followed that with Baghead (2008), more of an experiment than a fully felt effort: Could you successfully combine a droll, Jim Jarmusch–style talk fest with a Wes Craven–inspired slasher flick? (Short answer: not really.) They were back on track with Cyrus (2010), starring John C. Reilly as a schlub who falls for a beautiful woman (Marisa Tomei), only to have the relationship sabotaged by her possessive grown-up son (Jonah Hill). Uneven and overlong, it nonetheless deepened one of the central themes of The Puffy Chair: the venomous hostility at the heart of so much male-on-male gamesmanship. It proved, too, that the Duplasses’ herky-jerky visual style and improvisatory methods could be applied to a bigger-budgeted, star-driven vehicle.
Whether by happenstance, design, or genetic inevitability, their solo projects have also seemed all of a piece. In Humpday (2009), directed by Lynn Shelton, Mark starred as a straight guy who agrees on a dare to make a gay porn film; with a curious mixture of cheeseball braggadocio and quiet melancholy, his performance tapped into the contradictions of trying to prove your masculine bona fides in a metrosexually liberated age. As part of the ensemble of the underappreciated FX series The League, about a ferociously competitive fantasy football league, Mark gives affectionate voice to the suburban desk jockeys who heroically cling to this dorkiest of passions (see “Major League”). For his part, Jay directed a 36-minute documentary called Kevin (2011), about the Austin musician Kevin Gant, who seemed to disappear without a trace in the mid-nineties. Another quintessentially Duplassian tale of a little boy lost, Kevin suggests what The Puffy Chair or Cyrus might have looked like if recast as tragedy.
An assessment of the Duplasses’ most recent directorial collaborations is tricky: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon was filmed in 2008, before Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but wasn’t completed until recently, so it’s hard to say if it’s a step forward or back. In some respects, it’s the Duplasses’ most discomfiting work yet, a story of two embittered brothers (Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly) who decide to restage a 25-event sporting competition they first held in childhood. The filmmakers are terrific at satirizing pettiness and exposing how grown men will sacrifice pride, integrity, and even large sums of money in order to score a pointless point. On the other hand, they don’t really say anything here that they haven’t said already about the vagaries of sibling rivalry. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is more technically polished, consistently funny, and confidently acted. But it too is a tale of rivalrous siblings, and it ultimately feels minor. The characters’ feelings and frustrations come off as cutesy affectation; the final stretch devolves into cloying whimsy.
Which is perhaps a roundabout way of saying that, as busy as they are, Jay and Mark Duplass still have some work to do. For one thing, their scripts tend to run out of gas, right at the point you expect them to turn knotty and ambiguous. They’ve yet to depict a completely believable woman on-screen, despite having attracted such A-list actresses as Susan Sarandon and Catherine Keener to their projects. And—let’s be honest here—they need to place an immediate moratorium on the stories of bickering brothers. What might suit them best, in fact, is a break from the Hollywood treadmill. There’s no mistaking their ambition and industry, or their generosity and big-heartedness. But it’d be nice to see what they could do if they gave their talent more room to breathe.
Major League: Mark Duplass’s TV gig deserves an end-zone dance
Set to begin its fourth season in the fall, just in time for football season, the FX comedy The League might be the best-kept secret on television right now—a cult hit that deserves mainstream embrace. Created by husband and wife Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer, the show features Mark Duplass as one of six friends who compete annually in a fantasy football league in the hopes of claiming “the Shiva,” the award given each year to the winner (in season three, one of the men creates a Shiva championship ring and a music video called “The Shiva Bowl Shuffle”). The dry, absurdist humor owes a debt to Arrested Development; the loose-limbed, fly-on-the-wall visual style owes something to the Duplass brothers’ movies. But the show’s sweet-spirited fondness for its daffy characters proves impossible to resist. The first two seasons are now on DVD; season three should be available later this year.