The latest Netflix offering from Jay and Mark Duplass – the tenderly funny and sad “Paddleton” – encapsulates, in cinematic form, Claude Debussy’s assertion that “music is the silence between the notes.”
“Paddleton” is the story of a friendship between two neighbors who bond through their shared love of kung fu movies and their mutual dislike of small talk. It’s sparse on dialogue but rich in emotion: The entire script of “Paddleton” weighs in at fewer than 10,000 words.
Economical dialog is something of a trademark for the Duplass brothers, who are among the most prominent filmmakers in the mumblecore genre – which includes low-budget, independent classics such as Andrew Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha” and Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.”
The movie opens as Michael Thompson, played by Mark Duplass, is being informed that he has incurable stomach cancer. With him is Andy Freeman, his friend and neighbor, played by the increasingly likeable Ray Romano. (Check out his recent Netflix special, which is typically low-key and self-deprecating – and very funny.) Indeed, since his eponymous sitcom ended in 2005, Romano has delivered some remarkable performances, notably in “The Big Sick” and “Get Shorty,” which has been renewed for a third season).
Like the viewer, the doctor bringing Michael the bad news is curious about the relationship between these two middle-aged men. “We’re… uh… neighbors,” Andy explains, slightly embarrassed by the implied question. He doesn’t make the situation any less awkward when he adds: “I live on top of him.”
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Throughout “Paddleton,” Andy and Michael are assumed to be a couple. It’s an easy mistake to make. Despite showing no signs of physical affection, it is clear that they are close friends, each aware and forgiving of the other’s foibles and eccentricities. When they’re on a road trip together and Andy warns Michael that he’s going to need a bathroom break in two hours because he had oatmeal for breakfast, Michael lovingly corrects him: “But you also had a second coffee, so maybe 90 minutes?”
If either of the characters were more self-aware, they might have realized that they were, to all intents and purposes in a “platonic homosexual relationship.” But Andy is so socially awkward that one suspects he is on the spectrum, and Michael seems to take no interest in anyone else – including his sister, whose calls he screens.
The intimacy between the two men, their uncomplicated friendship, is what gives “Paddleton” its charm. They spend many hours playing an invented game – which they call ‘Paddleton’ – something like squash, in which they try to bounce a rubber ball off the wall of an old drive-in movie theater and into a barrel.
It is only natural, therefore, that when Michael decides he wants to end his life on his own terms, he tells his friend: “The dying part is... Meh.” But “the hospital, the tubes, the bloating. I don’t want any part of that.” Reluctantly, Andy agrees to accompany Michael on a road trip to get the prescription with which he will, when the time comes, end his own life.
The main tenets of mumblecore are naturalistic acting and dialogue, low budgets and a narrative that doesn’t usually “go anywhere.” And, for the first hour or so, “Paddleton” sticks to the rules almost religiously. Silences are frequent and pregnant, exchanges almost inconsequential. But they add up to more than the sum of their parts.
True to their roots
The last act of the movie elevates “Paddleton” to a new level. Duplass’s portrayal of a man choosing to die, and Romano’s subdued performance as the surviving friend, are incredibly moving and powerful – despite, or because of, their awkward inarticulateness.
There is, however, a bittersweet undertone throughout “Paddleton.” Neither man is emotionally capable of expressing his love for his friend. On his deathbed, Mike finally tells Andy that he loves him. In response, Andy nods, cries and tenderly puts his hand on his dying friend’s head. But he only says “I love you too, Michael” after his friend has slipped into unconsciousness. The poignancy of that last – and first – “I love you” is deeply moving.
“Paddleton” was co-written by Mark Duplass and Alex Lehmann, who also directed. Lehmann has collaborated before with the Duplass brothers, directing their previous Netflix movie, “Blue Jay.” He also directed the highly acclaimed “Asperger’s Are Us,” which might explain some of Andy’s behavior in “Paddleton.”
Mike and Andy’s story is told in parallel to that of “Death Punch,” a kung fu movie (specially made for this film) that the two friends watch repeatedly. The movie exists not only to bond the two friends, but as a signpost: The closer Mike gets to death, the closer we come to discovering the denouement of the “Death Punch.” It isn’t subtle, but, as a plot narrative, it serves its purpose well.
The Duplass brothers might have signed a four-movie deal with Netflix, but they remain true to their indie roots: low-budget, unashamedly emotional without being mawkish, and – most remarkably – deeply witty and funny.