Paddleton - Review

A creative partnership is forged between Alexandre Lehmann, Mark Duplass, and Ray Romano in the excellent indie-gem Paddleton.

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As an exploration of platonic love, Paddleton fills just about every indie-flick requirement: quirky friendships, random bouts of rage, and a premise far too dramatic for its wily characters to deal with. It doesn’t hit with the same force as a Juno or The Big Sick, but in its dialogue Paddleton comes to rest on a kind, tranquil balm of contentedness that’s just as gripping as those two films.

Quick heads up: do not watch Paddleton if you don’t like Ray Romano. The stuttered dialogue, easy catch-phrases, grump aesthetic, it’s all here in full force. Writers Mark Duplass and Alexandre Lehmann encourage his quirks to the bitter end. Much like his smaller role in 2017’s The Big Sick, Romano proves he can still reel an audience in with best-in-class vulnerability, then twist the knife with a character reveal. He has a wonderful acting partner in Mark Duplass, whose roles to this point have consisted mostly of the thriller and smart-ass variety. In Paddleton, he plays Michael, best friend and neighbor to Andy (Romano) with whom he watches old kung-fu movies, plays a made up game on a massive wall, and makes homemade pizzas. Their friendship is quaint, thoughtful, and romantic, though they are platonic throughout. The interdependency of it is marvelous in its structure, and executed with an even better attention to detail. When Andy learns that Michael has cancer, and that he has chosen to end his own life before things get bad, there is no cathartic moment of understanding. The two grapple in the awkwardness, fidgeting in the cold shower of their displeasure. Paddleton is a test of friendship, forcing its characters to step beyond their quirks to a deeper level of admiration, one that goes beyond simple infatuation.

Direction is simple and sweet, performed with remarkable skill by second-time director Alexandre Lehmann, who shot Mark Duplass in 2016’s forgotten gem Blue Jay. The slowed down title sequence is a carefully crafted warm-up to the characters we are about to know well, as well as an introduction to the titular game. It’s rarely acknowledged in the film, though it often shows up to guide the story and provide a base for conversation. A similar effect is achieved with the use of the movie “Death Punch”, though in a far more overt way. It runs parallel to the series of events in the story, as Michael and Andy watch it nearly every time they are together. A classic tale of the student becoming the master, it is able to silently steer the narrative while maintaining its background-like qualities; in a pivotal bar scene, Michael gets up for an open-mic to exude his love for the film, diffusing a tense jealousy between himself, Andy, and a hanger-on. It’s silly, hilarious, and ends in a warm reminder of priorities. It’s good advice, to show your friends you love them.

Even at its goofiest, Paddleton makes an effort to be taken seriously. In a key moment, Michael loses his calm and begins to fear death, questioning his decision to end his life. Andy cools him off and repeats that everything is going to be alright. Moments later, Michael is gone, and Andy lays his head against the wall, destitute. The time invested in a friendship is never wasted, even if it ends in unavoidable tragedy, and that is the message of Paddleton. We see Andy begin to move on as new residents, a mother and son, move into Michael’s old apartment. He talks to the son for a moment, telling him about his halftime speech and the made-up game he created with his best friend: “It doesn’t sound like a lotta fun, but it is.” Life leaves little time for resolution, for a chance to earn back the comfort that exists in a lasting friendship; that can be debilitating, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try again.