To play Paddleton you will need: two tennis rackets, a ball, a large wall, an empty oil drum and a friend. You take turns to bash the ball against the wall and — if you’re lucky — score points by landing it in the drum between you.
This inconsequential game is best played while in the middle of an inconsequential conversation: about Kung Fu or pizza or what life would be like if you had to live with a wool beanie stretched over your face. This is Paddleton played as the game’s inventors, Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano) intended. It’s a distraction, a quasi-serious pursuit with ambiguous purpose.
Andy and Michael play Paddleton because they need all the distractions they can get. Michael has cancer and he’s not going to live for long. Andy can’t face the truth, so they’re stuck with pretending that their usual shtick can vault this abyss. Their relationship — built after Michael moved into the apartment beneath Andy’s — is homely, corny almost, like The Waltons, except that after Andy wishes Michael a good night he’ll be woken by the sound of his terminally ill friend vomiting downstairs.
Duplass and his co-writer, director Alex Lehmann, deliver this strange concoction — an improv bromance mixed with a tragic love story — with delicacy. They strike a tricky balance between humour and pathos, mainly because there’s still a deep truth in friends — let’s face it, male friends — struggling to express their platonic love for each other, especially when that love is being forcibly taken away.
Cinema’s man-boys have been trying to hide their feelings behind ephemera for decades. ‘Clerks’, ‘Swingers’, ‘The World’s End’ — in these films it’s deathly important for men to avoid emotion, to express love for a person through a shared love of something consumable. Life for these characters, for a lot of us, is something they need to break down into units of game time or scores across a season or even, film quotes — the shared language of reference and counter-reference that, like those three little words, only really connect when they feel right. Duplass himself played a more aggressive version of this kind of bro in The League, the FX sitcom about a group of friends — four men and one woman — who’s obsession with besting each other at fantasy football helps them avoid facing up to the depth of their friendship.
Which all sounds promising for ‘Paddleton’, except that sustaining a film about pop culture as a stand-in for life’s hard stuff is tricky work across three acts, especially when terminal cancer is driving your narrative. Duplass and Lehmann try to evade the obvious by sending Andy and Michael on a road-trip: a six-hour drive to the nearest pharmacy that will give Michael the drugs he needs to end his own life. It’s on this trip that Andy’s denial fails. Assaulted by reality, he steals Michael’s drugs and locks them in a pink plastic toy safe — the fantasy hiding the truth again. It’s an interesting dynamic at this point — Michael and Andy’s friendship threatens to die off before Michael does — but Duplass and Lehmann resist following this darker, potentially more interesting idea. The score, the same plinky-plonky spritz of piano and acoustic guitar you’ll hear across countless other indie dramedies, really doesn’t help.
Romano, the ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ sitcom giant turned low-key character actor, puts a lot of work into Andy, perhaps too much.
His character is stranger and more volatile than Michael and Romano loads him up with ticks and quirks.
A scene in which Michael attempts to get the safe back from Andy ends with Duplass’s character screaming “I’m the Cancer Guy!” and Romano’s screaming back “I’m the Other Guy!”
In fact, that’s often reversed. Duplass is too regularly sidelined by the bigger performance, so we lose touch with why we should care about The Cancer Guy as much as Andy does.
‘Paddleton’ is a film riddled with dissatisfactions — it’s not heavy enough or funny enough or anywhere near as profound as the filmmakers are trying to force it to be. It doesn’t maintain the balance, but at the same time it does movingly convey what it might feel like to see the inconsequential things — the kitschy movies, the made-up ball games, the stove-burnt pizzas — endure while your best friend trundles to a stop.
The movie’s best and worst is on display in a scene in which Andy practices a goofy half-time speech he’s made up for a fictional sports team. “We’re going to lose this game,” he says, with complete conviction. “But so what, I’m proud of you.”
Don’t miss it
‘Paddleton’ is now streaming on Netflix.