The Mundane as Extraordinary in Alex Lehmann’s ‘Paddleton’

Ever since his role in The Big Sick in 2017, Ray Romano seems to have made a comeback and proven to audiences that he can play both comedy and drama in equal measure. Netflix’s Paddleton allows him to prove this yet again, cast alongside indie film veteran Mark Duplass.

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This is the second film that director Alex Lehmann has worked on with Mark Duplass, having released Bluejay in 2016—which is also labeled as a Netflix original. Mark and Jay Duplass have been powerhouse producers of the independent cinema scene for years now, and it was announced just last year that Netflix would have the screening rights to their next four films, with Paddleton being the first of that contract.

It is exciting to see Duplass team up with Lehmann again, and although the films deal with completely different subject matters, they still manage to generate the same feelings of genuine connection and realism. While I would not necessarily consider Paddleton a mumblecore film, its same tenants are present in this film: reliance on chemistry of the actors rather than a beat-by-beat script or impressive camera tricks, a simple plot and short run time, and—my personal favorite—an appreciation and love for the mundaneness of life.

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Michael (Duplass) and Andy (Romano) aren’t just neighbors; they are close friends. Andy lives directly above Michael in their apartment complex and they have the ability to speak each other through the vents that connect them. Between making pizzas, watching kung fu movies, and playing their own made up game of “Paddleton” which seems to be a hybrid of paddle ball and squash, they do everything together.

Michael has been diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer, and has decided that he would rather pass away while he is feeling like himself than when he is barely clinging to life within a hospice. However, the only pharmacy willing to fill out the prescription for the medicine he would need for an assisted suicide is six hours away. While the film frames itself through this short journey, it is certainly more than a road trip film. With only an 89 minute run time, the film allows itself a simple premise about simple people experiencing an extraordinary friendship during a difficult but very real fact of human existence.

Ray Romano and Mark Duplass have such wonderful chemistry that I could watch them re-enacting their favorite scenes from kung fu movies for hours. It is rare that we get to see male friendship presented to us in the way that it is in Paddleton, where the two leads allow themselves to be emotionally available to one another, to confess their secrets and biggest regrets, and to let the other know just how much they love and care for them.

What is so beautiful about this kind of filmmaking is the rawness of it. Not “raw” in the sense it is often used—violent, gritty, unflinching—but raw in that it is simply life. The camera does not attempt to make them seem greater or lesser than who they are. There is no unnecessary comedy “bits” and scenes don’t tend to wrap themselves into neat packages.

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At one point on their road trip to pick up Michael’s prescription, Andy asks him if he was given infinite wishes by a genie, how many would it take before he got to “sand off,” the very mundane ability to say “sand off” and have all sand wiped completely off your body. Michael gives an outrageously large number, because of course there are so many things he would wish for before he got to such a simple and practically useless ability. Andy says that it most likely only take him about nine wishes. And this is the core of the entire film. Andy has everything that he wants. He lives right next to his best friend, they solve puzzles and watch movies and eat pizza and play Paddleton. This is his life, and he loves his life —he loves what he does with it and who he spends it with—so, after eight wishes, what else could he ask for except the ability to not have to worry about washing sand off his body anymore?

Love is extraordinary and powerful all on its own, it doesn’t always need an extreme story to watch it unfold. Even in moments of illness and death, this is a universal truth. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder once said, “the simpler a story is, the truer it is,” and never has this been more true than in Paddleton.

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