This review contains spoilers.
Melodrama has no place in the quiet, understated, and often hilarious world of Paddleton. Mark Duplass, who co-wrote the Netflix dramedy, and Ray Romano play Michael and Andy, improbable friends who live in neighboring apartments. When the younger man, Michael, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the two journey to a tourist town in California to pick up the pills that will eventually end Michael’s life on his terms. Admittedly, not much action actually occurs over the film’s duration. However, the humorous mundanity of Andy and Michael’s conversations — fueled by Duplass and Romano’s undeniable chemistry — fill the hour and a half runtime with well-timed laughter. And the unbearable sadness of Michael’s ever-shortening timeline adds a beautiful, poignant element. Even if the slow pace deters you, the weight of the final scenes make every perceivably tedious moment worth watching.
Much of the central conflict in Paddleton revolves around Andy’s stagnation in a modern world. He offers up dated opinions and antisocial quips in a characteristically stuffy New York accent, refuses to purchase a cell phone, and laments his young coworkers’ attempts to engage him in friendly small talk. You half expect him to yell “Get off my lawn!” at some passerby, but it’s clear that Michael’s friendship restores his youthful spirit. Like a pair of bored summertime kids, they bond over a made-up game named Paddleton, where they take turns throwing a ball against an abandoned drive-in movie screen. They spend hours rewatching their favorite kung fu movie Death Punch, and even drunkenly reenact a scene later on in a crowded bar full of critical bystanders. Their ridiculous conversations seem more fitting for the playground than for a road trip to buy lethal pills — at one point, Andy discusses the merits of his superpower of choice, which entails removing every grain of sand from your body upon the call “Sand-Off!”. Their dialogue is imaginative, improvisational, and so silly you sometimes forget that they’re both not 10 years old.
Even so, they’re tasked with facing the very mature realities of mortality. Michael readily accepts his inevitable fate, only visibly faltering in his anxious final moments. But Andy has considerable trouble grappling with the future loss of his only friend. He reverts to a childish state, even buying a toy safe to lock away Michael’s prescription, evoking an emotional response from the viewer somewhere between empathy and pity.
Over the course of their stay in the dinky California motel, Michael pushes Andy toward social situations, perhaps in an attempt to prepare him for life after his passing, with little success. When a woman advances on Andy, he physically pulls down his beanie to cover his eyes, shrouding himself in fear and embarrassment. That this moment is uncomfortable to watch is an understatement: it’s nearly unbearable. But what Paddleton does the best is present these raw, human moments; Andy and Michael are flawed, sometimes even pitiful, but their characters are emotionally impactful precisely because of the film’s unrelenting realism.
One of the film’s most affecting moments comes when Andy and Michael commence a yelling match about Michael’s momentary disappearance from the hotel; Andy wakes up to find him missing and frantically searches the town, only to find him in the lobby, socializing with other men. Andy’s jealousy overtakes him — exacerbating Paddleton’s unclear stance on the men’s supposedly platonic relationship — and the fight escalates to Michael stating, “I’m the one dying.” Mortality, up until now addressed by the men only in concrete and mechanical terms, finally rears its ugly, truthful head, and Andy vocally admits his fears: he’s not the one dying, but the one who’ll be left behind. He’s the other guy.
The buildup to the final scenes, when Michael plans to take his own life, begins when Michael takes the first round of pills, which will prevent him from throwing up the lethal meds, and Andy sets a timer for an hour. The conversation remains improvisational and somewhat ridiculous — Michael asks Andy the best way to make contact with him in his new ghostly form — but every minute carries so much more weight. Silence is so powerful in these final moments; Paddleton makes little use of music in general, but dialogue usually fills the quiet. Now, the heaviness of the quiet is striking. These are the last moments of banter they’ll share, and for the first time, Andy has little to say.
Tasked with bringing Michael his medicinal, lethal drink, Andy wavers near the sink, maybe contemplating pouring the whole dose down the drain. You almost want him to. But this is not a movie of grandiose moments and twists. The film admirably resists the temptation to romanticize death, and Michael’s final moments are anxiety-ridden, devoid of any epiphany or world-shattering realizations. Romano’s acting chops are tested, and he passes with flying colors as an awkward, unsure Andy. Michael affirms that he’s doing great — Michael’s the one dying, and still the concern’s on Andy — and Andy assures that he “has a feeling” that Michael will be alright. It’s a clunky sentiment, surely not the dialogue typically warranted in a film’s most dramatic scene, but it so naturally fits the moment. It’s the best Andy can do, and you know that it’s rooted in love.
Luckily, Paddleton doesn’t leave you wondering whether Andy will be forever lonely in the wake of Michael’s death. A mother and son move into Michael’s apartment, signaling irrevocable change, and Andy strikes up an awkward conversation about his made-up game and favorite kung fu movie with the young boy. Andy clings to his simplistic and repetitive routine — his grief won’t change him in some dramatically positive way — but at least, finally, he’ll let someone else in.