Misfit neighbours Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano) are content cruising along in their familiar friendship with homemade pizzas, kung fu movies and the made-up game Paddleton as companions. However, once Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the two begin to revaluate their relationship as they face the end – together.
In Netflix’s quest for a never-ending ocean of content, a few definable sub-genres stand out as essential in each new wave. A low-key horror. A tear-jerking drama. A quirky comedy. A name like Paddleton rules out the demonic, so we expect the film to finely balance tragic drama and buddy comedy. What we got instead lent to near-tipping point towards the eccentric, meaning any real empathy towards the characters is stifled.
Michael and Andy are awkward neighbours in non-descript apartments in a non-descript town. In fact, most of the narrative world outside the pair’s experiences is non-descript. The supporting characters lack the screen time to add to the story, so it’s left for Duplass and Romano to carry Paddleton. While it’s no disaster, this eggs-in-one-basket approach backfires when they don’t have perfect chemistry.
Looking at each performance separately, things seem pretty good. Romano’s character is believably neurotic and driven by denial. Duplass’ Michael is more welcoming of his fate, until an excellently raw and emotionally aware turn towards the film’s end. The main acting failure lies in the friendship’s balance of power. Andy becomes louder and more controlling as Paddleton goes on, to the point where his noise drowns out any chance of us building our empathy with Michael. You’ll forget this is a story about terminal cancer and start to think of it as a documentary on uncomfortable platonic relationships, a narrative misguiding rife across the film.
Duplass, who in co-writing Paddleton furthers his extensive indie drama screenwriting experience, penned the line ‘I’m the guy with cancer’ for his character to shout at a controlling Andy. It’s a timely reminder of what this story is about amongst all the tired in-jokes, and the only real insight we ever get about Michael outside of the bromance. Some effort is made towards referencing a family backstory, but it rang clear as just a plot device for intensifying Michael and Andy’s co-dependency. There is nothing wrong with a good bromance, but Duplass’ script takes it to all-consuming heights, where we feel as if the leads can’t function as believable characters outside of their bro-bble. Under-development is rampant throughout, with a road trip sequence, American cinema’s go-to device for character growth, going nowhere and getting little from the single romantic interest.
It’s only in the last 20 minutes that we build any emotional connection with the characters. It’s during this crescendo that Duplass’ writing really comes together, perfectly blending comedy and drama for some tear-jerking moments.
The directing and cinematography of Paddleton can be seen as one of two things – subtle, to allow the acting to take centre stage, or simply uninspired. Optimistically, I think it’s the former. The locations are interesting – the abandoned drive-in movies near the pair’s apartments is an interesting backdrop, and the town they stay in during the road trip segment is picturesque. However, if director Alex Lehmann was aiming for an unnoticeable style of directing, he certainly succeeded.
A low-key bromance that flies way too low under the radar, Paddleton offers little to sink your teeth into. 4.5/10.