Despite being a movie centered around two middle-aged best friends (Michael and Andy), Paddleton takes its cues from tales of childhood friendships. While each of the guys has a natural maturity that comes with age, they are very much juveniles at heart. They routinely play “paddleton”, a game they created which uses rackets, a ball, an oil drum, and the back of a drive-in theater screen. Dinner is often a frozen pizza cooked in the oven at one of their apartments. And they enjoy watching the same cheesy kung fu movie over and over again. Though they may be closer to retirement than adolescence in age, their lifestyles are that of the stereotypical post-high school wanderer. What each has been unable to find in love or careers, they have found in their friendship with each other.
Director Alexandre Lehmann, along with star and co-writer Mark Duplass, devotes the entirety of the film’s short 89-minute runtime to the quirky friendship between Michael and Andy. Michael’s terminal illness is introduced in the first scene eliminating any potential drag in the story that would be caused by making the audience wait for what we know is coming. Though the illness is central to the story and is omnipresent, in the early stages of the film, it is treated as more of a McGuffin to move our characters beyond their mundane routine — or as the parent of a teenager would say, “to get them out of the house.” As the film unfolds, their friendship both grows and strains. Michael’s stoic determination to control his own fate creates upheaval for Andy who struggles to support, but not lose, his friend. After lulling viewers with the back-and-forth between this eccentric pair for 80 minutes, Lehmann and Duplass bring everything rushing to the forefront — the illness, fate, mortality, and friendship — in a poignant moment that hits incredibly hard in all the right ways.
Paddleton is carried by Mark Duplass and Ray Romano. One or both of them is in every minute of the film and with only a few other characters getting a few minutes of screen time, the entire film rests on their shoulders. Both actors prove up to the task and feel equally at home in their chummy comedic moments as their heavily dramatic ones. Romano, in particular, seems to be enjoying a career revival as a dramatic actor (with some comedic undertones) as his performance as Andy is on par with his much-lauded performance in The Big Sick.
On the surface, Paddleton is a film we have seen before in some form. The childish adult friendship of Step Brothers. The strain put on that friendship by a medical illness in 50/50. The indie-style offbeat duo in Napoleon Dynamite. Unlike these films though, Paddleton dares to go outside of its lane in order to take the story where it needs to go and the result is something brutally honest and bittersweet yet satisfying.