The game is to hit a racquetball off of a wall and into a barrel. There is no audience, the barrel has gunk on the bottom, no one even knows the game exists other than Michael and Andy. They call the game Paddleton, and it’s the most exhilarating and unpredictable part of their daily routine.
Paddleton the movie (now streaming on Netflix) is a story of routine. Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano) work on puzzles, eat frozen pizza, watch kung fu movies, and play Paddleton every day. They dress like men who are always waiting for a call to go paint a house. They barely know how to communicate with each other, and are utterly hopeless communicating with anyone else.
The film’s inciting incident is somewhat typical; the opening scene shows a doctor diagnosing Michael with terminal cancer. He reacts to the news with a quiet, resigned stare, leaving Andy to awkwardly ramble to the doctor. There is the option to fight it, but Michael immediately decides it would be too painful to suffer through. He chooses to take doctor-prescribed pills to peacefully kill himself. The key struggle of the film isn’t a cancer patient battling his diagnosis, it’s about how this news affects the lives and routines of two codependent friends.
Even with the grim premise, Paddleton maintains a light-hearted and sincere tone throughout it’s 85 minute runtime. The improv dialogue comforts, but doesn’t crackle. There aren’t epic montages or grand gestures, but moments of tenderness are found in these daily routines. Director Alex Lehmann constantly keeps his sets well-lit. He doesn’t give his characters any dark room to brood about their circumstances.
Michael and Andy travel out of town to find the pharmacy that carries the pills. The road trip isn’t very long, but it’s enough to drastically alter their schedule and take them out of their comfort zones. Andy is still processing his friend’s diagnosis and succumbing to his anxieties. He brings his dark-colored beanie everywhere as a security blanket, even using it as a shell to withdraw into. Andy’s curmudgeonly, prideful personality is a gold mine for awkward comedy. Romano, not known as an indie actor, delivers a natural, honest performance that pairs well with the understated style of Duplass.
Lehmann’s portrayal of an intimate, platonic male friendship is refreshingly original because it’s understated. The crisis of this friendship is more visceral because it’s not overdramatized. There is no desire to reinvent the wheel. The film’s lack of ambition is reflected in its characters. Paddleton shows that passion and beauty can still exist without ambition.
The film could have benefited with a deeper dive into a few topics, especially behind Michael’s immediate decision after his diagnosis. Too many conversations, including a tongue-in-cheek talk about the afterlife, felt cut short. Lehmann wisely made sure not to turn the movie into The Bucket List, but it seemed one more short adventure away from being complete.
As a film with a small budget, Netflix is the best medium for it to be seen by as many eyeballs as possible. Finding a quiet, evocative movie like Paddleton is like finding a needle in a haystack. The haystack just happens to be growing at an exponential rate. The title makes sense when Michael and Andy are giddily jumping around an old barrel at the beginning, but it also makes sense by how the game evolves at the end.