Early in the somewhat shambling new comedy/drama Paddleton, two best friends, played by Mark Duplass and Ray Romano, retire to bed in their respective apartments. Their bedrooms are so close in proximity that they’re able to call out to each other just before shutting out the lights. “Goodnight, Michael,” one of them says. “Goodnight, Andy,” the other replies. It’s a moment reminiscent of The Waltons, and it exemplifies the disarming sweetness of Paddleton, receiving its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before streaming on Netflix next month.
That the film is going to be dark-tinged becomes apparent from the opening scene. Michael (Duplass) is informed by a doctor that he has a cancerous mass in his stomach and lesions on his liver. He’s a bit clueless at first upon hearing the news, but it soon dawns on him and his friend Andy (Romano, sporting the sort of horribly unflattering haircut instantly signifying his character has trouble with social interactions) that he doesn’t have long to live.
Michael takes the shattering news in stride, barely allowing it to interrupt his seemingly daily routines with Andy that include games of “paddleton,” their made-up variation on paddleball, played against the back of a long-abandoned drive-in theater, and watching vintage kung-fu movies while scarfing down frozen pizzas.
The film’s bare-bones storyline centers on an overnight road trip undertaken by the two men to pick up the legal drugs that will allow Michael to end his life. To say that Andy is reluctant to assist his friend in the endeavor is an understatement. When they finally procure the medication, he purchases a tiny safe to make sure that Michael doesn’t make any rash decisions without him.
Although the screenplay is credited to Duplass and director Alex Lehmann, it was apparently developed out of rehearsals with the two lead actors. The results have a rambling, improvised quality that might have proved grating or self-indulgent but works well here, thanks to the actors’ well-honed comic talents and chemistry together. The appealing, underplaying Duplass essentially plays straight man to Romano, who exploits his character’s neuroses to frequent hilarious effect while admirably not attempting to make him ingratiating.
There’s definitely an uneven quality to the goings-on; some moments feel overly contrived, such as Michael’s attempt to reenact a scene from his favorite chopsocky pic in a bar filled with disinterested patrons that goes disastrously until Andy jumps in to save the day. Other moments are both amusing and poignant; Romano shines in the scene in which Andy has an unexpected hot tub encounter with a widowed motel proprietress (Alexandra Billings) whose not-so-subtle flirtation both arouses and terrifies him.
Paddleton sneaks up on you, wresting its way into your heart even while you’re trying to resist its overly determined quirkiness. Much of the action takes place in the Danish-themed California town of Solvang, a locale so visually eccentric you wonder why it hasn’t been used in movies more often. It’s an inspired choice here, serving to accentuate the adolescent qualities of the man-children at the film’s center.
To its credit, the film doesn’t indulge in a fairy-tale ending, such as Michael having been misdiagnosed or changing his mind about ending his own life. Rather, it concludes with a harrowing but deeply touching scene that makes vividly clear the depth of the characters’ love for each other. And before you can fully recover from its devastating effects, there’s a coda quietly illustrating that life goes on. It makes you smile even while you still have a lump in your throat.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: Duplass Brothers Productions
Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison
Director: Alex Lehmann
Screenwriters: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann
Producers: Mel Eslyn, Alana Carithers, Sean Bradley
Executive producers: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Ray Romano
Director of photography: Nathan M. Miller
Production designer: Angel Herrera
Editor: Chris Donlon
Costume designer: April Dunlap
Casting: Amey Rene