Terminal illness brings some laughs, some frustration in 'Paddleton'
In 2009, Mark Duplass starred in “Humpday,” which asked what would happen if two straight men attempted to film themselves having sex, therefore confronting their own homophobia as well as any latent attraction that may have existed during a long friendship. The only stakes are whether or not the two will go through with it, the deadline for entry in an amateur porn festival and what that means for existing heterosexual relationships. The movie did not find many particularly revealing answers, but it at least posed a curious scenario.
“Paddleton,” which also stars Duplass, poses somewhat of an opposite situation, and fittingly does even less to probe. The stakes could not be higher: Michael (Duplass) has terminal cancer. This matters most to Andy (Ray Romano), Michael’s best friend and upstairs neighbor, with whom he regularly spends nights making pizza and watching a kung fu movie called “Death Punch.” Michael and Andy are just friends in the sense of no physical relationship existing between them, but there is unquestionably more to it. Michael was previously married to a woman, and Andy makes a big deal out of a new girl at work striking up conversation with him. Yet they are also clearly more interested in spending time with each other than anyone else (a female hotel manager’s efforts to romance Andy in a hot tub do not go well), and the satisfaction these two derive from each other is intimate in a number of subtle ways. This includes a T-shirt Andy gives Michael containing an unsolved hangman puzzle; Andy enjoys how much it bothers Michael but really makes him the shirt because of how sad Andy believes Michael becomes after finishing a puzzle. There is nothing suggestive about straight male friends doing nice things for each other, but the connection between these two can certainly resemble a romantic partnership more often than not. “From the very first moment, we could totally tell that you were in love,” says Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), the aforementioned hotel manager.
Still, “Paddleton” is not really about whether or not these two will make any changes in their dynamic in the final period of Michael’s life, or even really talk deeply about various elements of their shared circumstances. For a while it becomes a road movie, the pair driving six hours away to find the doctor who will fill Michael’s controversial prescription to take charge of deciding when he will go. This provides excursions like a visit to an ostrich farm and challenges to the guys’ isolated dynamic, like when Michael befriends a pharmacist named Dave (Kadeem Hardison) and Andy treats him like an intruder. There is something sacred and even possessive between these two, especially because of Michael’s condition, but also because of a sort of earnest codependence. A more daring movie might have strived to really rock the foundation of this central relationship and see what shakes loose as a result.
Instead, director Alex Lehmann (who co-wrote the script with Duplass and also directed the star in 2016’s more affecting “Blue Jay”) hovers around the soft edges of this romantically underscored bro love, between guys who say goodnight each night from their beds in vertically aligned apartments and complement each other in amusing ways. “Life’s normal for you after that?” Andy asks, baffled, after Michael shrugs at the notion of a guy floating on a hoverboard. For Michael, a changing reality is interesting and exciting; for Andy, routine is comforting, and upsetting the familiar sparks frustration. It also leads to a sweet moment in the bar: Andy is initially annoyed about Dave’s presence, but when Michael attempts to lighten the mood by doing a live recreation of scenes from “Death Punch” and the routine predictably falls flat, Andy provides technical assistance (making a barrel shake) and reminds Michael he is never alone as long as Andy is around.
The result lands somewhere between endearing and wishy-washy, especially because the film takes such a tight focus (as opposed to a more ensemble-based, mortality-facing saga like 1983’s “Terms of Endearment”) only to feel blurry in the details. It winds up feeling more like a middle-aged, antisocial, asexual “50/50,” imbuing a tragic situation with humor and a deep level of male bonding. Yet there is something non-specific in the hedging about the nature of this relationship that some might call effectively ambiguous but really exists at a remove from the characters and culture at large. Romano and Duplass are both very talented actors, with “The Big Sick” and “The One I Love,” respectively, particularly showcasing the layers both can provide. While Romano is given more to work with, both actors excel at depicting the established closeness between Andy and Michael in “Paddleton,” whether the pair is eating side-by-side on the couch or playing the titular game, a twist on racquetball that they made up and involves attempting to land the ball in a garbage can. In this case, that happens after smacking it off of the back of an old drive-in movie theater screen.
Maybe that screen is meant to be significant and bittersweet. Maybe these two barely living guys, underwhelmed in their day jobs and seemingly lacking any other strong human connections, are helping each other stay alive like a repurposed drive-in screen. The film disappointingly crests with Michael saying he loves Andy and Andy seeming to wait too long to reciprocate, which, whatever the true nature of their relationship, seems outdated either in a post-“I Love You, Man” world or just one in which, fortunately, gay relationships are not only legally recognized but, in most parts at least, far less taboo.
”I thought ‘I know I need to be alone,’” Michael tells Andy of his divorce. “I thought that for sure, and then I ended up here with you. And I knew this is my spot.” There are several suppressed elephants in the room throughout “Paddleton,” which neither prevents the ability to enjoy its empathetic heart nor frees it from an overly cautious narrative. At the very least, it is a testament to the little inventions that exist because two people enjoy each other’s company and want time to play in the manner that makes the most sense to them.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.