Thursday, March 28, 2019

Paddleton Serves Up An Emotionally Affecting Portrait of Male Friendship

Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano) are an unexpected pair of buddies. They're apartment neighbors, with Andy living above Michael, and they've gradually become friends who bond over classic martial arts move, homemade pizzas and a game they created called Paddleton. Once the movie Paddleton begins, though, that friendship is threatened by Michael contacting a life-threatening disease that can't be cured. Death is unavoidable and now these two pals are looking to make the best of whatever time they have left, which will include a road trip to procure some extremely rare medicine for Michael.

Despite the whole plot getting kicked off by the looming prospect of inescapable death, Paddleton as a movie is as calm as a sunrise, it's more laid-back than anything else. The feature and its attitude seem to be taking a cue from Michael, who doesn't want to make a big deal about his affliction, he just wants to casually enjoy whatever time he has left with his friend, Andy. Thus, that's just what the story proceeds to concentrate on as we follow these two just enjoying each other's company with only sporadic instances of conflict stemming from Michael's disease. It's an unexpected approach for a film tackling the topic of a life coming to a gradual close, but it's one that Paddleton pulls off with quiet success.

Director Alex Lehmann (who also penned the screenplay alongside leading man Mark Duplass) showed an impressive ability to pull off intimate low-key storytelling involving two characters with his excellent 2016 directorial debut Blue Jay, which way more people need to watch and praise. Paddleton isn't quite as good as Blue Jay (a high as heck bear to clear) but it's yet another highly engaging motion picture that provides further evidence on how Lehmann and Duplass know how to both get a lot of drama out of intentionally stripped down dramatic scenarios and create a powerful subdued melancholy atmosphere.

Like with Blue Jay, Lehmann is also working with two great lead performances on Paddleton, one of which serves as the newest part of Ray Romano's recent resurgence as an actor. Romano, who was absolutely hysterical in The Big Sick, has always leaned on an endlessly paranoid everyman persona that seems to come even more natural for him as he's gotten older. That guise is put to great use in Paddleton, particularly in terms of his numerous comedic lines referencing his mundane distastes that include a passionate dislike for small talk. As the story goes on, Romano also shows an impressive ability to communicate lots of woe in subtle ways, you don't need his character to explicitly state his sorrow when Romano can just convey that through body language so clearly.

Duplass isn't as distinctive as Romano in his performance as Michael but he still turns in solid work in his lead role and, perhaps most importantly, he has believable chemistry with Romano, the two of them totally come off like long-time pals in their rapport. Speaking of the dynamic between the two lead characters, I thoroughly enjoy how this is a movie about two dudes being friends that isn't afraid of depicting male friendship as something sweet with no irony attached. Too often, these kinds of films about mundane male friendship engage in icky toxic behavior to convey the bond between "bro's", but Paddleton, thankfully, eschews that and instead has no problems depicting the bond between the two leads as something that runs on genuine compassion.

It's also a clever move on the part of the screenwriting to have this compassion emerge in ways that feel specific to the characters, with Andy, for instance, using a Fisher-Price safe in a creative manner to both satisfy his own paranoia and help his sickly buddy. It's a situation that ends up resulting in some effective comedy while capturing how much these two guys care about one another in their own unique way. Allowing these two guys to actually be emotionally intimate with each other in a distinct manner is a key reason for why Paddleton ends up being so emotionally affecting.  It's a humorous comedy about male friendship that isn't afraid to grapple with well-executed instances of pathos, a sight that's as rare to see as people engaging in a game of Paddleton.

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