I always have time for a Mark Duplass movie. And while not all of his films land as firmly as they could, the ones that do always manage to pull me in. I’ve always appreciated his aversion to big Hollywood formula. His movies operate on a small budget, tend to be short but economical, and usually have a warm and intimate center. That definitely holds true for his latest (and the first film in his new exclusive deal with Netflix) “Paddleton”.
The movie begins with Michael (Mark Duplass) getting test results from his doctor which reveal a large mass in his stomach. His fears are proven true after seeing an oncologist – he has terminal cancer. Unable to bear the thought of hospitals, radiation and side effects, he chooses a controversial alternative to chemotherapy – a prescription that essentially helps a cancer patient end their life before the disease does.
Michael seeks the help of his neighbor and best friend Andy (Ray Romano) to help him go through with it. The buddies are like two peas in a pod – kinda homely and a tad eccentric. They have longstanding traditions of watching Kung fu movies, cooking pizzas, and putting together puzzles. Oh, and then there’s Paddleton, a racquetball-like game they made up and play together at an abandoned drive-in theater.
The closest pharmacy willing to fill the prescription is in a small tourist town some six hours away. So Michael and Andy head out on a road trip made up of quirky conversations, an ostrich farm, a dryly hilarious pharmacist named David (Kadeem Hardison) and meditations on their favorite movie “Death Punch”. But more importantly it opens up these two characters and the endearing and routinely funny friendship at the core of the film.
Romano is just the right fit to play Andy, an insecure worrywart by nature with a disdain for smalltalk (and for David), yet he’s undeniably tender-hearted and quietly devastated by his friend’s plight. Duplass is just as good playing a variation of the comedy straight man. His Michael is a tad more level-headed but not without his own peculiarities.
Duplass and Romano have a sharp, witty chemistry and what makes it stand out most is their improvisation. Duplass’ script offers plenty of room for the two stars to play off each other and director Alex Lehmann is smart enough to let them. It’s not surprising since Duplass and Lehmann did the same thing in 2016’s “Blue Jay”, an underseen drama/comedy featuring its own healthy dose of improv.
The film’s early playfulness all but disappears in its final 20 minutes as “Paddleton” blindsided us with an emotionally earnest and deeply affecting ending. It left me looking at the film as a whole through an entirely different lens. I’ve seen it a second time now and the themes of loneliness, friendship, and mortality stand out even more profoundly now. I get why a lot of people won’t be as enamored with “Paddleton” as I am. But what can I say? I’m an unabashed fan of its simplicity, its humor, and its heart.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS