Death in cinema is common, characters die all the time. Sometimes its sad, sometimes its violent and other times its strangely laughable. We all have different reactions to death and more often than not, film has the ability to trivialise it while basing much of a film’s emotion around the simple notion that death affects us all. Paddleton in its own quiet contemplative way manages to make a film all about dying and by allowing the characters to trivialise it, it stands out as the most important thing in their world.
Telling the story of best friends Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano), two reclusive small town men who live lives of quiet isolation. They go to work, come back and watch kung fu movies and eat pizza. Nothing about it is special until Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suddenly everything everyday is more than, the unique moments brought about by his diagnosis are the escapes from the reality that their routines are coming to an end and they might not be able to handle that.
Released by Netflix back in February, Paddleton is a clear sign that there has been a significant shift in the kind of content that the streaming company want to put their name behind. Not only sombre but lacking in the kind of loudness that makes for real water cooler moments, Paddleton is completely outside of the regular Netflix brand and it helps this story of outcasts and misfits stand out. Michael and Andy are the forgotten, the outliers resigned to live a normal but quiet life and a spotlight has been rightfully shined on them.
While they are happy to support each other within this bubble where only they exist, there are moments where you can clearly see the sore spots within them, the regrets that they aren’t more open, more a part of things like other people. The way that writers Alex Lehmann (also the director here) and Duplass himself have used the idea of cancer and the fear and freedom that comes with it is laudable. The idea that everyone embraces their finality and what comes with it is a bad joke, a punchline that doesn’t work. Here cancer is cancer, the end doesn’t mean that things have to change, it just means you have an openness to embrace what you have moving forward, it can be bad, it can be good, it’s all meaningful.
Really it is a brutally honest story of friendship and the unconditional love that comes from such a relationship. The routine they have, the made up game of Paddleton they play to pass the time isn’t just an escape, its something they have that nobody else does. Their nights spent watching movies are just for them. These evenings seem arbitrary at first but by the end, they’re everything. The idea that some people watching this on a quiet night in might consider just how much we take for granted our own quiet nights is a mind-boggling notion.
The flip side of the coin however is that Paddleton is a film of build up, with a clear ending and a goal in sight. It might not be a pleasant finishing line but this is a marathon, not a sprint towards it. With that in mind it is easy to understand why it, for most of its run, is painfully dull. While the ending is affecting, intense and beautiful in all the best ways, it is all thanks to a series of trivial moments and banal discussions between two friends.
While the little moments flesh out how they choose to spend their time, why they are important to each other and how others see them it never translates into compelling viewing until the end hits you like an anvil. The script while detailed and adept at thematic resonance is just a series of rants between old friends, inside jokes and references to cult movies. The problem is that we are a part of none of it, there is no personal connection here and you are forced to spectate instead of participate. Lehmann has built a wall between you and the characters and while it might lessen the blow when it comes around to its untimely conclusion, it fails to service a plodding beginning.
While there is no denying that Romano and Duplass are incredible performers and they give their heart and soul to the material, in the end you can sympathise with them but it rarely reaches the levels of empathising which is what Lehmann seems to be shooting for. Being stuck on the outside and never being let in means that these two are genuinely alone and while some might think that it would be nice to know them, Paddleton shows that you can’t get enough out of either one of them.
Paddleton while viciously real has painted a portrait of a friendship so precise there is no place for anything else including the audience. It’s hard to chastise a film for doing something so well but personally it could have done with being a little more inclusive, unlike the characters it follows.