Cancer dramas are usually mawkish, teary things, melodramatic films where the fear of loss is exuded in every frame. It’s somewhat refreshing that director Alex Lehmann and co-writer/star Mark Duplass managed with Paddleton to find a way of creating a warm, amusing, and deeply affecting film about friendship and mortality that avoids all the obvious pitfalls.
The title refers to a haphazard game played by two neighbors, Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano). The two bounce a ball off an abandoned drive-in movie screen (no small irony for a Netflix presentation), trying to get it to bounce into a barrel. Taken broadly, the game is just as dependent on the luck of the bounce as life, a delicate metaphor that’s not overplayed.
The two share pizza nights together watching the same kung-fu film over and over. They bond deeply as friends. Duplass exudes his usual, disheveled charm, but Romano once again demonstrates his remarkable range. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, since he’s been in some mighty impressive movies, but it always seems like a kind of awakening when he shows up on screen, taking a moment to divorce himself from his goofy stand-up character to inhabit what we get in this project.
When Michael gets diagnosed with terminal cancer, the two go on a surreal road trip to a Dutch-themed town in California, seeking out the method by which he can decide to live on his own terms. The phrase “assisted suicide comedy” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but with a cracking script and terrifically understated performances, there are lots of things to admire about this film that tries something really hard and succeeds.
The tonal shifts are the most challenging, and thanks to subtle direction and performances, Paddleton manages the trick effortlessly. Even the maudlin elements are downplayed. We really feel like we’re watching two friends come to terms with everything they need to encounter together. The movie is deeply affecting and effective.