Lehmann’s ‘Paddleton’ is a rare Netflix must-see

Photo courtesy of Netflix

On Feb. 22, Netflix released “Paddleton,” an Alex Lehmann-directed drama film about the friendship between two middle aged single men. The central characters — Andy, played by Ray Romano (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Michael, played by Mark Duplass (“Safety not Guaranteed”) — are neighbors who spend practically all of their free time together, making homemade pizza, watching old kung-fu movies, playing trivial pursuit and complaining about having to make awkward small talk with their coworkers.

The film follows the two friends as they cope with Michael’s impending death after the first scene of the movie reveals that he is suffering from incurable stomach cancer. Michael decides to get a prescription for euthanasia pills, and the rest of the film portrays the two friends struggling to come to grips with — and sometimes even fighting over — the decision.

“Paddleton” is an undeniably unique film. Aesthetically, it feels similar to “The Big Lebowski.” The two live in drab apartments, wear drab clothes and work drab jobs. Where Jeffrey Lebowski, Walter Schobak and Donny Kerabatsos have bowling, Andy and Michael have paddleton, a makeshift game in which the two use tennis rackets to hit a ball off a large wall and into a barrel. 

Thematically, however, it could hardly be any more different from the Coen brothers film. Strangely, despite focusing on the inevitability of death, “Paddleton” is a deeply optimistic film that leaves the viewer with a very different feeling from that left after watching “The Big Lebowski.” 

Additionally, where the friendship between Jeffrey Lebowski and Walter Schobak is a fairly conventional masculine relationship — the two struggle with intimacy and often act aggressively toward each other — that between Michael and Andy exhibits a refreshing and unconventional form of masculinity.

The film does an excellent job of avoiding the bro-cliches that typically plague buddy movies. Instead, Andy and Michael have a child-like relationship, mostly discussing silly hypotheticals like how many wishes they would make before asking a genie for a power which allows them to get all the sand off their bodies with one command. They also have ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek arguments ­— at one point, Andy sarcastically claims that the ostrich is the fastest land animal.

In another cliche-subverting moment, Andy and Michael are checking into a hotel when the concierge asks if they would prefer a room with a single king bed rather than one with two queens. The viewer naturally expects the tired joke in which the two are embarrassed at being mistaken as a couple, but his expectations are subverted when Andy and Michael handle the situation calmly, responding with indifference rather than indignation.

Another aspect of Andy and Michael’s relationship which the film gets right is the way in which the two use humor in the face of dark moments. This unconventional use of comedy helps to break the film’s persistent tension and to make the two characters feel more real and human. 

The directors of serious films are often afraid to incorporate comedy into their movies, probably because they are afraid that humorous moments will clash with the dark tone they have set and jolt viewers, making the characters feel unrealistic and cartoonish. In “Paddleton,” however, director Alex Lehmann recognizes that humor is an essential tool which people use to cope with dark and serious situations, and his unorthodox use of comedy makes his characters feel more authentic, not less.

An excellent example of this use of humor in serious situations comes when Andy and Michael go to a pharmacy to pick up Michael’s euthanasia medication. Andy makes a dramatic gesture, attempting to pay for the expensive prescription, only to have his card declined. This causes Michael to crack up, lightening the tone of what otherwise would be an oppressively dark moment.

The true power of this joke, however, is only revealed later. Andy — who has a lot more trouble coping with Michael’s death than Michael does — refuses to let Michael hold onto the medication, seemingly worried that he’ll take it without him even knowing. When Michael demands that Andy give him the pills, Michael argues that they are actually his pills because he is the one paying for them. 

While this all feels like just another inconsequential spat between two childish friends, it represents Andy’s struggle to exert some control over Michael. While he outwardly respects Michael’s decision to end his life early, he subconsciously feels that he should have some say in the matter given how important Michael is to him. 

Although Andy never really tries to stop Michael from ending his life, he does whatever he can to take some control of the decision. These efforts at taking control first manifest themselves in Andy physically holding Michael’s pills, but later morph into more subtle manifestations.

The most obvious of these manifestations is a “half-time speech” which Andy works on throughout the film. The speech begins as a simple joke, but after Michael tells Andy of his intention to end his life, Andy begins to delude himself into believing that he can use the speech to stop Michael from doing it. 

Lehmann’s choice to use the speech as a central motif is a brilliant one. It allows the viewer to watch as Andy’s hopes of saving his only friend slowly fade, eventually disappearing altogether when Andy, fully expecting to fail, halfheartedly tries his speech out. Michael’s final rejection of Andy’s speech manages simultaneously to be a powerful moment and one which the viewer has been expecting and dreading for the entire film.

Moments like these are what make “Paddleton” a great film. Lehmann explores friendship and mortality together in a way which feels fresh, touching and profound, and constructs truly likeable and relatable characters. The film is an absolute must watch, and one of the best Netflix originals to date.