Director: Alex Lehmann
Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano
Watch Paddleton online in the UK: Netflix UK
“Remind me of your relationship. How do you know each other?” asks a doctor at the start of Paddleton. “We’re neighbours,” comes the reply from Andy (Ray Romano). Michael (Mark Duplass) swiftly agrees. That tells you everything you need to know about this film – the story of a platonic friendship that’s intimate and intense, but without ever admitting it. Our two protagonists are close, but not too close, a running joke that’s less about people mistaking them for being a couple, and more about their inability to communicate openly about their emotions.
This delicate bromance is buffeted by what they learn during Michael’s visit to the doctor: that he has cancer, and that it’s terminal. Adam’s response is to ask endless questions and get worked up. Michael, though, decides that he doesn’t want to go through treatment and would like to end his life instead – a decision that requires a journey to a far-off town to get the suitable medication. And it’s in this balance between the conventional road trip genre and its weighty subject matter that Paddleton mines its mixture of laughter and tragedy.
It’s a difficult balance to sustain, though, and Alex Lehmann and Mark Duplass’ script doesn’t get every step right; the effect is less consistent that the similar 50/50, or the more overtly quirky Prince Avalanche. That’s partly because Paddleton doesn’t delve as deeply into its complex topic as one might like, or sharpen its dialogue into a more satirical study of bonding activities among men who don’t express their inner turmoil; the largely improvised dialogue plays things safe and sweet, save for some choice scenes towards the end. One moment in a hot tub aside, Ray Romano plays his role big, while Mark Duplass goes small, almost to the point where Michael’s diagnosis is the most notable thing about him. It’s a pairing that’s reminiscent of Bryan Cranston in Last Flag Flying, threatening to tip things into uneven territory. Like that film, though, there’s an underlying tenderness to its central chemistry that rings true.
That emerges as the defining quality of the movie, whether the pair are debating the kung fu movie Death Punch or playing their made-up sports game involving a ball, a wall and a barrel – anything to spend time with each other while avoiding discussing actual feelings. The fact that their in-joke gives the movie its title is a telling indicator of why it works; the bumpy road of Paddleton’s opening half builds to a climax that’s cathartic and surprisingly moving, as the film grows from an introspective comedy-drama about an in-joke to an act of reaching out to share that in-joke with other people. A pretend half-time monologue by the coach of a losing football team (delivered with a lot of gusto by Romano) sums the whole endeavour up; Paddleton might not always hit its target, but by the time the end credits roll, it leaves a deceptively nuanced, heartfelt mark.
Paddleton is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.