[Note: this review, more than most reviews, contains spoilers, because if it didn't, there really wouldn't be much to talk about.]
A common way to champion an actor is to say, "Man, I'd watch him read the phone book!" Ray Romano, beloved former sitcom star nimbly pivoting to later-in-life dramatic acting roles (see: The Big Sick) has officially become one of these guys for me. The joke almost becomes a reality in Paddleton (streaming on Netflix now), an 89-minute movie where, for about 81 of those minutes, not a damn thing happens.
In one scene, Romano argues with his credit card company. In another, he's rambling about ostriches. This is compelling cinema? Well, not exactly. But Romano, bouncing his unique deadpan off Mark Duplass' blank wall of a character, is undeniably watchable. Director Alex Lehman (who has co-writing credit with Duplass for what is clearly an ad-libbed jam session) keeps a melancholy lid on this low-fi buddy picture, building up to an all-timer of an ending scene.
While there are laughs (more like minor chuckles) throughout this mumbly movie, it's important to know that it is quite sad. Or, at least, heavy. In the first scene, Duplass' Michael learns he has cancer. He seems pretty stoic. His pal Andy (Romano) is the one asking the physician all the questions. It becomes clear that this isn't a treatable form of the disease; Michael is on borrowed time.
The pair are kind, but if you met them in real life you'd probably use an unkind word to describe them: losers. They are single, middle-aged dudes who live in cheaply furnished, ugly apartments in the middle of nowhere. They have menial jobs. Michael works at a copy shop, Andy wears a tie and files papers, and gets nervous around his attractive co-worker. Andy lives on the top floor, but spends most of his time eating frozen pizza and watching kung fu VHS tapes with Michael downstairs.
The "adventure" of Paddleton comes where they pair take what I guess in movie terms would be considered a road trip. They head to a little vacation village and a specialty pharmacy to get Michael's end of life medication. (This exists out in some states, like California where Paddleton is set.) When the time comes, Michael takes the pills.
This scene — the ultimate dramatic act couched in a borderline anti-movie — is one of the most riveting things I've ever seen. I'm not kidding. There are a lot of reasons. The most obvious is, wow, could I do this? Could I drink the liquid that will quickly kill me, even if I knew I would die soon anyway? (Importantly: Michael decides to end his life before his body devolves too much due to the disease. This stretches credibility a bit. Most people who choose assisted suicide are in debilitating physical pain and see it as the only way out.)
The other reason the scene stands out so much is that Duplass' Michael is such a quiet, passive character. Throughout most of Paddleton he's just some dude hanging out in shorts while Ray Romano's Andy is being weirdly funny. It all comes out in these few short minutes when he is facing the abyss. Similarly, all of Andy's self-doubt and prevarication strips away. When he is needed, he becomes the hero. This scene, shot in long takes, is a strange testament to bravery, friendship and compassion. When emotions are true, reflexes take over. I dare say that this movie is actually somewhat important.
This scene is more than enough to recommend the film, but I do want to caution that many of the other scenes really do feel dashed-off. It is not to Paddleton's credit that their destination is clearly the town of Solvang, where so much of Sideways (streaming here), one of the best sad-buddy movies of all time, is also set. Any mental comparisons are not going to do this new one favors. There's also a whole schtick in a bar where Michael is talking about his favorite kung fu movie that just goes on forever. Is it supposed to be boring and awkward? Hard to say. Still, when Andy comes in to help out with the tale, it is warm.
Paddleton isn't intentionally named in a way to confound kids looking to stream movies about British bears. It's the name of a game Michael and Andy have made up that involves a rubber ball, the wall of an abandoned drive-in theater and a metal garbage container. As they whack the ball around, they mutter little asides. Like this home-brew of a movie, it's not quite regulation, but it works.
Jordan Hoffman is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, VanityFair.com, amNewYork, Thrillist and Times of Israel.