Loosing another indie arrow into the target of his career, co-writer/actor Mark Duplass scores another notch on the filmic scorecard.
Long a staple of the indie world, Mark Duplass (often teamed with brother, Jay) has an impressive record on the page and in front of the camera. From films like Jeff Who Lives at Home, Creep, Blue Jay, and The One I Love, Duplass has shown impressive aplomb for stripped-down storytelling that still manages to affect, surprise, and sometimes shock. Working with co-writer/director Alex Lehmann for the second time, Duplass presents yet another bare bones piece low on flash but high on the grounded sort of melancholy we saw in Blue Jay, albeit from the perspective of a different relationship.
Paddleton is the story of two friends with simple needs, simply content with each other’s company and with a few choice comforts: eating frozen pizza, watching kung-fu movies, and playing paddleton, a racquetball-esque game born out of innovative obsolescence. Using a rusty oil drum as a goal, and an abandoned drive-in theater screen as the wall, Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano) bounce the ball off the wall, taking turns trying to score it into the drum. The game perfectly mirrors the repetitious nature of their friendship. Bounce, pizza, bounce, paddleton, bounce, kung-fu flicks. The rub happens when Michael is diagnosed with an inoperable form of cancer, and decides to, with the assistance of a lethal concoction of pills, end life on his own terms.
Like Blue Jay, what you see is basically what you get. There are no wild twists, no sweeping revelations; it’s a resoundingly human story concerned with the emotional connection and investment of two platonic friends who, like brothers, live one above the other in the same apartment complex. Like Blue Jay, this is enough, and, if you’re patient enough to stick along for the ride, you’ll be treated to something uncharacteristically affecting for what it seems on the surface. Despite their apparent simplicity, Michael and Andy are easily likable characters, their humor is wonderfully quirky and good-natured, even their disagreements make you want to give both men a hug. This is due in large part to the skills of both leading men and the chemistry they share, which is undeniably warm and authentic. Duplass keeps Michael introspective and internalized until the climax of the film, while Romano presents Andy as a well-meaning but overprotective hen mother, fearfully sheltering Michael under his wing, trying to be supportive while still innocently, almost childishly trying to keep the present from slipping away into the past as the future bangs on their respective doors. The lion’s share of this film’s watchability rests with Romano and what he is able to do within the confines of the quiet mood of Lehmann’s film. His performance is subtle artistry, never destined to be Oscar-bait, but much more adept than all that frilly stuff.
What might turn viewers off this film is that the first hour is delivered so understatedly, with quietness bordering on shy reservation. If the performances aren’t something you can immerse yourself into and enjoy for themselves, there’s nothing else to sink your teeth into. Throwing all its eggs into one basket, Paddleton runs the risk of them breaking all at once, losing viewer interest. I, however, enjoyed the unhurried pace and the simplicity of watching the relationship on display, and, for other patient viewers, the payoff proves effective at rending the heartstrings. Its gripping, wholly devoid of melodrama, steeped in a realness experienced only by an unlucky few. With quiet buildup, we’re knocked into silence, suddenly wondering what comes next. Without the journey, the poignancy of the climax doesn’t land, and we’re immediately grateful for all that came before.
With Paddleton, Mark Duplass, Jay Lehmann, and Ray Romano have fashioned a roughhewn indie gem. Even without the fancy, polished gleam of a buffed-out crystal, the value is undeniable and intrinsic. For those willing to give it a little of their time, Paddleton will prove its worth.