Paddleton stars Mark Duplass as Michael, a quietly spoken middle-aged man who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He chooses to spend the last weeks of his life with his best friend Andy, played with low-key charm by comedian Ray Romano, who is Michael’s neighbour, living directly on top of his friend in their set of ramshackle apartments. Not wanting to die slowly and painfully, Michael decides to purchase a lethal cocktail of drugs that he will take when he feels ready. But in the meantime the two men try to continue their normal lives, eating pizza, watching Kung Fu movies and playing their favourite game, Paddleton, which involves hitting a ball against a giant billboard, attempting to get it to bounce into the barrel behind them.
The film is a co-production between Netflix and indie darlings the Duplass brothers, and boasts the same creative team as the similarly gentle and yet gut wrenchingly emotional Blue Jay (2016), which is more than worth a look. As in their previous collaboration, Mark Duplass is the writer and star, while Alex Lehmann directs; here he also receives a co-writer credit.
Like Blue Jay, Paddleton is essentially a two hander. Romano and Duplass’s relationship is entirely credible. They are single men who have found solace in each other’s company and have a natural rapport. Feeling no need for small talk, which they both especially dislike, they have developed an almost unspoken language that binds them together. In particular, they have invented a game, Paddleton, that to outsiders might sound silly. They also love the same Kung Fu movie, “Death Punch” that is barely available outside of YouTube and second hand VHS tapes. In short, they’ve created a private world together that forms the framework of their platonic love. It’s all beautifully observed and played.
As one would expect from these two performers, they also have great comic timing. The overall tone of the film is a kind of naturalistic comedy, and one can easily accept that two ordinary people could be amusing in this way. In one charming scene, Andy asks Michael how many wishes he would have to have before he got to “Sand-off.” What’s “Sand-off?” The ability to say the above phrase and have every grain of sand disappear from your body. Michael suggests twelve hundred wishes, while Andy thinks ten would be enough. The film is made up of many such exchanges, which, while not exactly hilarious, create a picture of two men who enjoy being a double-act for their own entertainment.
Michael’s approaching death adds an extra layer of resonance to their friendship, as he does what he can to keep things as normal as possible, to leave their relationship unaffected, right up until the end, while Andy struggles to come to terms with letting go – he literally locks up Michael’s suicide cocktail and carries it around under his arm.
For some Paddleton may be a little too loose, the comedy too gentle, lacking in absolute zingers. But that would be to miss the honesty and sweetness of the film. That the platonic love between two men, a love that is virtually unspoken and undemonstrative, is as valuable and beautiful as any other. The easy-going charm of the film, which leaves one feeling affectionately involved with the leading characters, also lends the film’s final moments an added emotional intensity and melancholy, as Michael and Andy, two very ordinary men, come to terms with the surreal nature of death. It’s worth pointing out that in these more dramatically challenging scenes both actors do some sterling work.
Paddleton is a charming, amusing and moving film about the value of love in all its forms, the unspoken language that can take the place of speech when two people are truly bonded, and, sadly, the hanging thread that death always leaves.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 8/10
Paddleton will be available on Netflix from February 22nd (regional variances may apply) and will receive a limited theatrical release in some regions on the same day.