The Do-Deca-Pentathalon is something of a relic. The film was made over four years ago, but is only getting released now. It comes from the Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, who are big figures in the “mumblecore” movement of independent film. The style is characterized by tiny budgets and lots of improvisation, and the Duplii helped kick start it.

In recent years, though, they’ve brought their sensibilities more into the mainstream, directing movies with bigger budgets and Hollywood stars, such as Cyrus and this year’s Jeff Who Lives at Home. Do-Deca-Pentathalon came before all that, and it’s interesting to see how far they’ve come since then.

The movie features many Duplass staples: siblings at odds, momma’s boys, an exasperated wife, lackadaisical plot progression, and arrested development. Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis play Jeremy and Mark, two estranged brothers who meet for the first time in years when Jeremy drops in uninvited for Mark’s birthday. The two have an extreme competitive edge between them that goes back to their youth, when they created the namesake “Do-Deca-Pentathalon” competition, a series of twenty-five athletic events designed to find out who was “the better brother.” Jeremy’s return reawakens that rivalry, and the two soon revive the competition, much to the consternation of their family.

Despite the film’s flaws (and they are numerous), there’s an honest core to it that’s the source of all its best aspects. It really nails brotherly interaction, a strange mix of affection and antagonism, of closeness twinned with friction. It creates some tender moments, but also frequently reduces these two grown men to being petty teenagers again. It’s true to life, and that makes the movie quite funny in places. Kelly and Zissis are totally believable as brothers, and there’s a genuine sense of unspoken history beyond what’s revealed to the audience. They’re also able to get a lot of mileage out of the seemingly one-note joke of these two middle-aged, out of shape guys bringing total intensity to their feats of “athletic” skill.

But while the movie excels at conveying its specific feelings, it stumbles in many other places. The plot is drastically half-assed, setting up threads that peter off to nothing, or have anti-climactic payoffs. Generally, it’s better that movies like this simply embrace a more free-form nature, since that better allows them to explore ideas.

But the film tries to create tension out of Mark’s wife’s (Jennifer Lafleur) frustration with Mark over the immaturity of the Do-Deca-Pentathalon. It sets up a scenario where she’s threatening to leave him, and it isn’t believable on an emotional or dramatic level. It feels like a cheap way to introduce conflict into the story. The Do-Deca-Pentathalon itself sort of dwindles away from the film’s mind after a certain point as well, leaving one to wonder what the point of it was. And at the end, everything sort of resolves itself, an unearned wrap-up that apparently naturally springs out of a climax of everyone yelling at one another.

There are good and bad times for an expeditious attitude to filmmaking. But trying to combine free flow and strict narrative approaches is a recipe for a terribly uneven piece, and that’s what happens with The Do-Deca-Pentathalon. It’s funny and feels real in many places, but in just as many it’s directionless and frustrating. The Duplass brothers have somewhat improved in this area since they made this film, but it stands now as a reminder that there’s a thin line between creative exploration and mere unprofessionalism.