If I was asked in an interview who my favorite filmmaker is, I’d probably recite a name like Martin Scorsese, Yasojiro Ozu, or the incredibly underrated directorial team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I do love those filmmakers, but my main motivation would be to choose someone who’d prove my bonafides as a film snob of the highest order. If you gave me a dose of truth serum and asked me the same question, I’d probably say Mark and Jay Duplass. You may not have heard of them. Their films don’t break box-office records, and they aren’t nominated for Oscars or even critics’ awards, but they’ve made some of the most honest, heartbreaking, soul-searching, and playful films of the last two decades.
The young brothers from Austin, Texas were branded an overnight success in 2002 with their Sundance short, “This is John,” which they shot on videotape one afternoon in their apartment. It’s an inventive, naturalistic film in which a sad office worker has a nervous breakdown while trying to record his outgoing answering machine message. They moved on to feature films with 2005’s “The Puffy Chair,” a low-budget, heavily improvised indie about two brothers trying to bring a chair to their father, and “Baghead,” a lighthearted deconstruction of horror movies. Then Hollywood came calling. They worked with bigger budgets and bigger stars with “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” a philosophical comedy starring Jason Segel and Susan Sarandon, and “Cyrus,” starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill as the feuding boyfriend and son, respectively, of Marisa Tomei. All are great.
Their films are deeply humanistic, asking important questions about how we can live our best lives. They achieve an emotional authenticity through their process of heavy improvisation, and all their films are shot with handheld cameras and a reliance on close-ups to foster intimacy. So why aren’t they considered among their era’s best filmmakers? Perhaps it’s because they’re not particularly cinematic. They aren’t visual stylists, and semiotics is a foreign concept to them. They’re not interested in dazzling us with technique. They don’t offer anything blazingly original, just an empathy-driven vision of our shared humanity. Their films won’t be taught in film school. They should be taught in elementary school.
There is, however, a cinematic twist in this story: Mark and Jay don’t actually direct together anymore. Several years ago, they consciously uncoupled. Mark recently made two incredible films with director Alex Lehmann, “Blue Jay” and “Paddleton,” both of which are available on Netflix. He also had a major role in Apple TV’s “The Morning Show.” Jay has also stepped in front of the camera with a recurring role on the critically-acclaimed series “Transparent” and his first lead role in the late Lynn Shelton’s “Outside In.” The duo still produce films together, and, perhaps because their style isn’t particularly cinematic, they have also found success on the small screen. They have a deal with HBO, which currently is airing their anthology series, “Room 104.” It’s a clever, engaging watch in which every episode is set in the same hotel room, but each is written and directed by a different artist with a new set of characters.
No matter what they do, however, the Duplass style shines through. The best argument for their artistic significance is that any project that involves them – even if they’re only acting in it – inevitably feels like a Duplass brothers production. Mark has acted in (but not directed) outstanding films like “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” and “Safety Not Guaranteed,” all of which channel the style the brothers pioneered. They feel improvised, even though they’re not. They portray human relationships with more authenticity than anything that has come out of the Hollywood machine. The films of the Duplass Brothers do what all great cinema does: illuminate the human condition and find camaraderie in suffering. They may never win a major award, but the rewards of their work are more valuable than gold.