Director Alexandre Lehmann tends toward two-handers about tough, but familiar, situations. In 2016’s Blue Jay, Lehmann, writer / co-star Mark Duplass and actress Sarah Paulson hung a tale of old flames sparking anew on a hook of largely improvised dialogue. The result was a stunningly intimate romantic drama in which both actors bravely followed each other out on a ledge (and a film that might forever change how you interpret Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s”).
Now streaming on Netflix, Paddleton reunites Lehmann and Duplass, and adds Ray Romano, for a bromance upended by a terminal cancer diagnosis and the recipient’s intent to end things himself before they go south. Given its ostensible build toward assisted suicide, Paddleton places most of its 89 minutes in the camp of inherent twee-dom.
Its title comes from the game Andy (Romano) and Michael (Duplass) have invented, a racquetball-basketball combination in which they bounce a ball off a drive-in wall and try to land it in a barrel (sometimes filled with a vagrant’s shit, sometimes not). In essence, Paddleton is a lowest-common-denominator method of intermittent movement for these two pizza-eating, kung-fu watching pals separated by a staircase in their apartment building. Romano and Duplass look schlubbier than usual, too — the former with bangs entombing his cranium like a helmet, the latter with perpetually unkempt hair and thrift-shop novelty T-shirts.
The first scene tells us Michael has six months to live. But much of what follows in the first act embraces the sort of preciousness for which people tend to knock Mark and his producing brother Jay’s little mumblecore-indie fiefdom. Paddleton sure could stand a lot less of the who-us? hem-hawing about people thinking Andy and Michael are “an adorable couple.” And where improvisation allowed Blue Jay to soar, a similar approach here finds Duplass and Romano chattily and tightly clinging to their respective personas of placidity and peevishness.
However, there are enough touching, telling moments here that illuminate the deeper ideas without any big monologuing from either actor. In fact, one of the film’s better turns is a feint away from expectations that Andy will perfect the “best halftime speech ever” he’s constantly practicing and into the introspection that comes from his repetition. With just one sideways glance, Romano shows us Andy’s dread that every conversation he’ll ever have once his friend is gone will be purely transactional.
There’s the owner of a novelty inn who chooses to break the rigid rules she has about after-hours pool usage with Andy and Michael simply because she likes them. And there’s the kindly pharmacist — one of few without moral objection to Michael’s choice — grappling both with the delivery of difficult instructions and a complicated payment process. (The price tag of Michael’s pharmaceutical solution leads to a sharp, wincing punchline when you least expect it.)
And, again without speechifying, the reasons for the title become clear: The decisions you would make in the wake of such news — or how your own best friend might respond to your request for a co-pilot — are a bit like trying to drop that ball in the barrel during a Paddleton round. Each time you take a swing at it, the velocity, angle and declination are always different. You can set the terms, but facing them in the moment is a different story.
It’s in the scene toward which the entirety of Paddleton leads up that Romano and Duplass go for broke — in believably human ways that let them find peace with the choices made without ever going too broad, blunt or blubbery. For all the buddy-buddy good times, Paddleton packs a wallop for its straightforward confrontation of its topic’s existential largeness — how hard it is to weigh an absence of immediate pain against what we’ve been told is a debilitating inevitability. Paddleton lacks the lived-in tension and urgency of Blue Jay, but it’s a gently strummed story about how, if you only open yourself to it, you can always find someone to fill the voids.