Sundance Review: Alex Lehmann's & Mark Duplass' "Paddleton"
“You had me at ‘hello,’’ “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “As you wish,” “I wish I knew how to quit you,” “You’re so cool!” Romantic love is put on such a cinematic pedestal. Final credits must not roll until until we are sure that our protagonists have won it, sacrificed it, risked everything for it, confessed it, or died for it. Love never fails to sell popcorn. Characters who miss out on it are less than, regretful, pitiable and, most often, secondary. But romantic love is hardly the be all and end all in love. It’s not even for everyone. Some people would rather sit on the couch watching kung fu movies with a very best bud. Paddleton is a film that gives platonic love between two dweebs the reverence it truly deserves.
Paddleton is the invention and favorite past time of neighbors Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano). All you need to play is a tennis ball, two rackets, a wall, a barrel, and someone willing to be on your side. It is one of the many little things that bond them as friends, as well as an ideological aversion to small talk, endless debates of the hypothetical, and a love of genre film. When Michael is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, telling Andy he was dying scared him. Mostly because he didn’t want it to change anything. Michael didn’t want him to get all weird about it like how he gets about seeing someone on a hoverboard, or almost losing his hat, or being near ostriches. Michael just wanted to die doing what he loves - playing paddleton, eating burnt pizza and watching Death Punch with his best friend.
The Duplass Brothers’ signature filmmaking strategy of flying by the seat of their treatment and improvising the specifics, adopted here by director Alex Lehmann, utilizes the strengths of it’s stars, Mark Duplass and Ray Romano. Their performances are vulnerable, authentic, and so, so funny. Andy is the debilitating combination of endlessly imaginative and anxious. In his mind, all possibilities of most situations have been considered by him, and he’s not into them. Romano’s facility with neurotic thinking is irresistible, and he sells Andy’s demented thinking with such conviction that you totally see where he‘s coming from. Andy takes a lot of patience on Michael’s part, and Mark volleys expertly with Romano’s agitated rants. It’s clear that most of their relationship is Michael minimalizing Andy’s latest irritation, so when their roles reverse in a dramatic way and Andy has to take the role of comforter, the awkward grace that this is accomplished is profoundly moving.
Paddleton is part cancer-flick, part road-trip movie, and all love story. Their relationship was not a consolation prize for not being able to get laid, or the next best thing to loneliness. Dare I say it? Michael and Andy complete each other. We should all be so lucky to have someone who we can be entirely truthful and one-hundred percent ourselves with - in good times and in bad. In sickness and whatever comes next. Through their performances, Duplass and Romano capture the ineffable beauty of true love that can’t be expressed in shorthand with a swell of music and a passionate kiss, or underlined with a tumble in the sheets. The consummation of Michael and Andy’s love is palpable, sweet, devastating, and the best damn cry I’ve had in a long time.