Coming off the last weekend of awards season and the hangover from major studio self-aggrandizing drama, Netflix quietly released the independently produced “Paddleton.” It stars Mark Duplass (“Safety Not Guaranteed,” “The League”) as Michael; a quiet, middle-aged man diagnosed with terminal cancer in the film’s opening scene. There to accompany him closely through the diagnoses and its aftermath is Andy, portrayed painfully honest in a dramatic shift by Ray Romano (“Everybody Loves Raymond”).
The relationship of these two men is close but largely never defined beyond the fact that Andy is Michael’s upstairs neighbor. Faced with this incurable illness (cancer of the stomach and liver), Michael decides that rather than wither away slowly and agonizingly, he will obtain a prescription for life-ending medication from his doctor.
Michael and Andy are close. Neither are seen socializing with anyone else and the only mention of family is a brief comment Michael makes about not wanting his sister to know about his decision to end it. The two men spend their free time eating frozen pizzas, obsessively watching Kung Fu movies, and playing a made up racquetball/basketball hybrid they’ve named Paddleton.
Michael asks Andy to be there with him when the time comes because he doesn’t want to be alone. Faced with this unfair and unwinnable circumstance, the two embark on a roadtrip to fill Michael’s prescription at the nearest pharmacy that has no moral objection, a short six hours away. The film chronicles the two men and their emotional navigation of a battle that they know will end in a loss of the worst kind, the loss of someone you love.
Some films use a grand scale to tell their story. They create worlds far separate from our own and envelop the audience into something that feels bigger, almost beyond comprehension. Some choose to tell their story more intimately; in a proximity so close that it hurts you with its truth. “Paddleton” captures the latter method superbly and conveys emotional depth and heartache, with a level of subtlety and honesty that is rarely seen.
The last decade has seen an explosion of the “bromance” genre of cinema that more often than not tries to ease the socially uncomfortable idea that two men can be emotionally close while maintaining their heterosexual machismo. However superficial many of those stories have been, what they have done is open the door for a film such as this to be taken seriously.
The setup of the film makes the audience question the nature of the two lead’s relationship but then dispels the notion of romance and allows the story to continue without the cloud of uncertainty. This creates an out of place feeling when their relationship is questioned on a couple of occasions along the way because it seems like an irrelevant bit of information.
Duplass and Romano’s chemistry is understated and heartwarming. They play like Matthau and Lemmon in “The Odd Couple” if both were socially anxious and neurotic. These two men have no one except each other which makes the inevitable doom all the more heartbreaking. Their discomfort and the way they keep things at arm’s length is what makes them relatable. How are you supposed to handle such a situation? More importantly, it asks the audience, “how would you handle it?”
Grief and pain have no guidelines and are infinitely subjective. What sorrowful films often try to illustrate are worlds where everyone says what they need to say, when they need to say it. People blow up at each other. Things are hashed out. Tension is resolved, and the only thing left to be sad for is a neatly-packed death at the end. What “Paddleton” does differently is illustrate how rarely people are actually like that. They are scared, quiet, and unsure of when to say what they feel.
The reality of death is that no one is ever really prepared when it comes. Whether its arrival is known and expected or sudden and jarring, when someone is gone, there is no getting them back. “Paddleton” has no plot surprises, it ends as was promised from the start. What is surprising is the genuine pain it inflicts on an audience that may not have seen it coming.
Paddleton (2019), Directed by Alex Lehmann, Runtime 89 minutes, Rated TV-MA, Available to stream exclusively on Netflix.