The opening credits of Paddleton play over images of its dual protagonists, Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano), hitting a tennis ball against the back of an expansive drive-in movie screen, with the goal of bouncing it into a garbage can situated between them. It’s the invented sport the film is named after, and an apt metaphor for the artistic goals of Mark and his brother Jay Duplass, who have been producing low-budget intimate dramas for the last 15 years. Their films, which include The Puffy Chair, Jeff Who Lives at Home and Cyrus, occasionally play on the big screen, but that’s not where they belong, and neither does Paddleton, their first in a four-picture production deal with Netflix. It should be watched in your living room, where you can ugly-cry without embarrassment.
A heartfelt bromance that doubles as a demystification of death and dying, it’s the story of two middle-aged men brought together by fate and a low-rent apartment complex in suburban California. Their daytime lives are especially ordinary – Michael is a cashier at a copy shop, while Andy works at a nondescript office – but they live for their evenings spent together at Michael’s apartment, eating frozen pizza, doing jigsaw puzzles, and watching kung fu movies that they take very seriously. It might seem banal, but within the contours of their friendship are the distinct markers of a committed and fulfilling adult relationship. Michael and Andy don’t need to make plans to hang out every night. It’s understood that they will. Their relationship is platonic, but they complete each other in ways that are typically reserved for romantic couplings. Michael is the calm, reassuring presence that Andy, who always imagines the worst-case scenario, needs to feel safe. Andy is the person Michael gets to take care of.
So when Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to end his own life, his friend tentatively agrees to support him, even as he dreads life alone. The two friends hit the road for a weekend trip to the nearest pharmacy that will fulfill his end-of-life prescription. In the small tourist town, they drink and socialize, and Michael, aware of the crater his death will leave in Andy’s life, lovingly tries to push his friend out into the world, urging him to befriend strangers and even try his hand at romance. Filmed largely in closeup with handheld cameras by director Alex Lehmann, the film’s eye for emotional intimacy never falters, and the push-and-pull between these two men who are as close as brothers rarely devolves into tension. Rather, it’s all seen as an expression of love.
A raw and authentic dual character study, Paddleton succeeds on the shoulders of its lead actors. The everyman Duplass gives an impressive physical performance, portraying with hunched shoulders and sagging eyes a man tortured by his existential predicament but still fighting to stay present. Romano, however, is the revelation. When Duplass waged a one-man awards campaign for Romano last fall, it was seen as a bit of savvy publicity for a film that debuted on Netflix to little fanfare last February. But Duplass was right that Romano deserved serious consideration. He has quietly built a résumé of uniquely affecting performances in The Big Sick, The Irishman and HBO’s Bad Education, but Paddleton is his meatiest role yet.
Over the course of the film, Andy grows up almost imperceptibly, forced to become the caretaker to Michael that Michael has been to him. It’s a performance – and a film – that refuses grandstanding. Romano has his share of inspired comic moments that feel like underdeveloped standup bits, such as Andy’s worry that if he ever saw a person on a functioning hoverboard, the shock of it would ruin his life. While such an observation might fall flat in the clubs, here it’s a telling character beat, revealing the inner workings of a mind that can spin disasters out of the mundane. When Andy is faced with an actual tragedy, he finds himself oddly, eventually well-equipped to handle it.
Individually and collectively, Romano and Duplass access intricate corners of the human soul that are dark and desperate and tender and loving all at once. As the two troubled men whose short-lived happiness together is interrupted by death, they explore the space where joy and grief meet, bound together by life’s impermanence. Perhaps this is why this film feels so well-timed to our particular moment, when death feels both abstract and acutely real, and when we’re seeking answers about life and loss that don’t come easily. Maybe answers aren’t what we need. Paddleton never makes any grand proclamations about death, a subject that, for over a century, cinema has made a business out of romanticizing, sensationalizing and, ultimately, obscuring. Here is a film that knows dying isn’t grand. It’s just another part of life.
Paddleton is available on Netflix in the US and UK