Paddleton Review: Duplass & Romano Make Up Games to Defy Death

Paddleton Paddleton (photo Netflix)

Mumblecore moves delightfully into middle-age in this Netflix sleeper about two neighbors who fight death by living their ordinary lives.

While we’re all guilty of feeling like our world can be shaken by life drama in our 20s, mumblecore has a solid tradition of celebrating those personal events as great drama. In the moment, that drama can absolutely have a high level of personal importance, but in a film it’s difficult to take that level of seriousness at face value. After all, the characters literally have their entire lives to get back on track or find the love of their life. But that’s also why the newest Duplass Brothers film, Paddleton, might be able to bring mumblecore toned films back from the dead by featuring characters dealing with the finite length of time they have left.

Paddleton follows Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano), a pair of up- and down-stairs neighbors who also happen to be the only friends they have. They spend their evenings in a contented ritual of hanging out, baking their own pizzas, watching ‘70s era kung-fu movies, and playing paddleton (a game they invented that involves a racquetball set, a barrel, and the tin wall of an abandoned drive-in movie theater). When Michael is diagnosed with incurable cancer, he asks Andy to go on a short road trip to Solverg, California to help pick up a prescribed medication that will peacefully end Michael’s life.

Paddleton’s biggest hurdle is learning how to love Michael and Andy. For the first half of the film it’s abundantly clear why they are each other’s only friends: they’re awkward, dislike small talk, and are genuinely content in their lives. In so many films, their daily lives would be depicted as boring or as failures – but for them, they are honestly living their best lives. Neither of them has an ounce of meanness to spare: Andy may hate small talk, but he’s not going to deride other people for engaging in it. He just knows he’s bad at it and thoroughly worries about having to engage with people who initiate.

Once you clear that hurdle, a switch flips and these two become genuinely charming. It isn’t like there’s a big movie moment where the audience is dictated to suddenly like these two fellows. It just…clicks. The movie earnestly presents them as people that it takes time to get to know and like, but once you do, it is awesomely rewarding.

Alex Lehmann’s direction is perfectly mundane, which fits the material; there aren’t any huge moments of cinematography or shots that leave you speechless, but his sparse approach works wonders for Paddleton. As per mumblecore tradition, Michael & Andy are the film’s sole focus; only rarely does the world around them get within their radius.


It wouldn’t be fair at all to say that Romano carries this film, but his performance sets the tone of Paddleton from beginning to end.

The script (co-written by Lehmann and Duplass) has a sense of patience that other end-of-life films should take note of: the moments of drama between Michael and Andy are rare, and they often only happen because there is literally nothing else to talk about. Most people, when faced with impending doom, try to continue their lives as normal; sometimes Michael and Andy don’t succeed, but both try genuinely hard to ignore that each moment is one moment closer to Michael deciding to take his life. Duplass and Lehmann find an amazing way to balance that desire for normalcy, while keeping the specter of fate in the context and tone of every scene.

As for the acting…holy hell. Ray Romano has proven himself in more dramatic turns over the past few years, but this movie is more than enough proof that he needs to be given a chance at a high-profile dramatic film. Romano has always been skilled at balancing frustration with comedy (pretty much the entire basis of Everybody Loves Raymond), so it just becomes all the more gut-wrenching when the comedy is taken away, leaving only his pitch-perfect frustration. It wouldn’t be fair at all to say that Romano carries this film, but his performance sets the tone of Paddleton from beginning to end.

Duplass is equally as good, but his role isn’t nearly as showy; Michael is actively living his life as calmly as he can, downplaying his emotional involvement, leaving Duplass to play. As he says, he’s “the dying guy,” and he can only forget that by living life as normal. But when Michael suddenly shifts out of his calm, the whole earth shakes, and Duplass takes advantage of that every time.  

There is an overwhelming sweetness to Paddleton. It’s not a movie about wasted time or chances. It’s not about pity or anger at what could have been. It’s a movie best described via Andy’s years-in-the-making Perfect Halftime Speech. It’s something he has been practicing for years and years, a masterpiece in motivation when everything seems to be lost. A speech that Michael actually doesn’t need and Andy does, but only when he knows that his friend will die. Their lives aren’t the tragedy – it’s that they don’t have more life to spend together. 

Paddleton Trailer

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