If you’re familiar with Ray Romano, chances are it’s from the long-running sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond or his voicework on Ice Age. Despite Men of a Certain Age and a recurring role on Parenthood, Romano is still best known as a comedian. But between the 2017 rom-com The Big Sick and his new Netflix movie, Paddleton, he may finally be changing that popular perception.
Paddleton, the story of two neighbors and best friends whose friendship comes under some strain when one is diagnosed with terminal cancer, firmly establishes Romano as a force to be reckoned with — though “force” may be the wrong word in this particular case. Paddleton has moments of comedy and more outsized acting, but it’s when the film hits quieter, more naturalistic moments that Romano’s dramatic chops become readily apparent.
Directed by Alex Lehmann, the film stars Mark Duplass as Michael, who’s battling cancer, and Romano as Andy, who’s reckoning with the idea of life after Michael is gone. Rather than wait and let his illness take its course, Michael has decided that he’d rather go while he’s still relatively healthy and in control. It’s a choice that causes Michael and Andy’s routine — pizza, dubbed kung fu movies, a made-up game called “paddleton” — to immediately begin to shift, not in terms of activities but in terms of emotional color.
Michael is running out of time, but so is Andy. There’s a starkness to Paddleton that comes from the subject matter of assisted suicide, but that’s on top of the dawning realization that all these men really have is each other. They don’t have any other friends to speak of, they don’t have any attachment to their jobs, and what family they have doesn’t really seem to be in the picture. When Michael dies, Andy will be alone.
It’s an awareness that mitigates whatever whimsical quality might have derailed the film as the two men embark on a short road trip to pick up the medication Michael will take to end his own life. As casual as the two men strive to be around each other, there’s no ignoring the way that Andy becomes insistent upon paying for everything, or his purchase of a safe (to which he won’t give Michael the combination) in order to keep the medication safe.
For the most part, the shaggy-dog quality of the film works in its favor. Paddleton was largely improvised — Duplass and Romano worked off of an outline rather than a traditional full script — and the uncertainty that sometimes colors the scenes only adds to the overarching sense that Michael and Andy are equally at sea. The film doesn’t escape a certain maudlin quality — there’s a scene at a bar involving a recreation of the pair’s favorite kung fu movie that teeters on being too twee — but Duplass and Romano are too well-paired. There’s sweetness and sensitivity even in the least believable moments.
It’s the film’s ending, however, that’s truly impressive. For all that Paddleton may roam into “quirky indie” territory, it never succumbs to the temptation to go all-out happy ending. The rapport that’s been established between Duplass and Romano — mistaken for romantic love by other characters in the film, which they’re quick to clear up — pays off in this respect, as the idiosyncrasies of their characters can no longer be used as smokescreens for the depth of their feelings.
Romano in particular is excellent, as Andy cycles through denial, helplessness, and finally the acknowledgment that the most important person in his life is calling upon him to do something that’s almost impossible to imagine doing.
By the time the film ends, Romano’s comedic side is almost outright difficult to recall. The film’s most impressive scene — a (relatively) long sequence with no dialogue — is one that Romano carries on his own. Whatever may feel annoying or disingenuous about Paddleton is trumped by the emotional honesty of its ending, and the remarkable tenderness of Romano’s work.
Though there are arguably enough movies out there about men learning how to deal with their feelings (and bouts of gay panic), Paddleton’s specificity stands apart. As insufferable as some of their bits may be — a made-up halftime speech, a conversational escape mechanism involving a hat — it’s undeniably affecting when they call “goodnight” to each other through the thin walls of their apartment. Paddleton is a movie bold enough to question how two people will live, or die, without each other.
Paddleton is streaming on Netflix now.