Jerry Seinfeld has a famous joke about the fact that, according to studies, people are more afraid of public speaking than dying: “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” For a lot of men, though, the only thing more frightening than public speaking is expressing your feelings to another man. This probably explains why, in the new film Paddleton, the genuine nearness of death is, somehow, secondary to the two main characters’ grappling with talking about what they mean to one another. We probably don’t need another movie about mumbling, unremarkable white, straight middle-aged dudes reaching for a modest emotional epiphany, but this Netflix comedy-drama is quietly profound about how uncomfortable tenderness can be between heterosexual guys — and why it’s worth the effort to ride out that awkwardness anyway.
The film is directed by Alex Lehmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Duplass. The two men previously collaborated on 2016’s Blue Jay, another low-key character drama about aging and regret. In that case, the story was about a man (Duplass) and a woman (Sarah Paulson) who used to be high school sweethearts but haven’t seen each other in years. It explored how love did (or didn’t) endure after so much time and distance. In Paddleton, love is also part of the equation, as the filmmakers once again examine characters who don’t want to talk about their emotions but, eventually, must. But if confronting an ex is challenging, Paddleton argues that talking to your straight buddy is even harder.
Duplass plays Michael, a regular guy who works at a copy store. He doesn’t seem to have anyone in his orbit other than Andy (Ray Romano), who lives above him in their shabby apartment complex. Andy seems even more withdrawn — he loathes the small talk he has to do in his soulless corporate day job — but he loves spending time with Michael, who shares his fondness for martial-arts movies and board games. (Plus, they came up with their own sport, paddleton, which is like a combination of racquetball and beer pong, without the alcohol.)
But as Paddleton begins, Michael gets bad news: He has terminal cancer, and probably only months to live. Michael is largely at peace with this, and he asks his best friend to go on a trip with him to secure the lethal, legal prescription that will kill him peacefully so he doesn’t have to be slowly destroyed by his disease. Andy is sad about Michael’s diagnosis, but he agrees to go, perhaps hoping that a miracle could occur and his bud will get better.
With hints of Sideways and the low-budget movies that Mark Duplass made with his brother Jay early in their career (The Puffy Chair and Jeff, Who Lives at Home), Paddleton isn’t a movie with much plot. The guys go on a road trip to get the medication, they hang out, they drive home, Michael decides when he wants to take the fatal dose — that’s about it.
So, in theory, this movie should have ample space to just let its characters talk, and while there’s a lot of dialogue in Paddleton, what’s noticeable is how much talking around certain topics they do. Michael’s impending death and these guys’ affection for one another are almost never discussed. Instead, they fill the silences with the things men tend to cart out in those delicate moments. They discuss games. Or movies. If things get especially desperate, conversation turns to Andy’s long-running project: He believes he’s crafted the greatest halftime locker-room speech ever, but he wants to get it just right before sharing it with Michael. What it will mean for these two men not to have each other, that’s the subtext of every scene in Paddleton, but they’re not equipped to discuss those feelings because it’s too scary. And so, as Michael comes closer and closer to deciding he’s ready to go, what’s not being discussed get increasingly louder — and their inability to communicate candidly grows all the more poignant.
Because they’re two single men with such a close bond, a viewer might wonder if they’re gay. Certainly it’s a thought that occurs to others in Paddleton: When Michael and Andy stay at a hotel, one of the employees tells them later, “You guys are so adorable. … From the very first moment, when you checked in, we could really feel that you were totally in love. It’s really sweet.” The moment makes them uncomfortable, and I was glad that it turns out that (as far as we can tell) neither of them is gay. That would have seemed like a gimmicky plot twist, undercutting the filmmakers’ point that straight male friends can feel so close to one another but yet be unable to say affectionate words to one another.
The movie suggests that Michael and Andy’s emotional timidity isn’t reserved for one another. We learn that Michael was married but eventually realized he wanted out — not necessarily because of his wife but, rather, because he just preferred being alone. As for Andy, there seems to be something blocked. He’s physically there, but his mind seems unable to fully access what’s going on around him. Romano does a remarkable job as Andy, never turning the character into a collection of tics. Andy’s not Rain Man or a disease-of-the-week eccentricity. Best we can determine, he’s just a sad, lonely guy who has a hard time completely connecting with anyone. He doesn’t have the capacity to tell Michael that he loves him, so he works around his hang-up by, say, stealing his friend’s medication as a way to delay the inevitable. As Paddleton goes along, it’s unclear what scary unknown will occur first: Michael dying or Andy sharing his feelings.
It’s easy to view Paddleton as a case study in two closed-off, undemonstrative men. There’s a tragedy at this film’s center as we see friends spend time with one another but never really open up. How much more profound, emotional and rewarding could their friendship be if they lowered their guard and allowed vulnerability to enter into the mix? But while that notion is heartbreaking, there’s another way to think of Andy and Michael as well. Like a lot of guys, they’re more comfortable burying their feelings. Their shared language is pop culture and minutiae, not emotions. It may not be the best way to navigate the world, but what’s beautiful about Paddleton is that it works for the two of them — and they were lucky enough to find one another, at least for a short while.
Here are three other takeaways from Paddleton. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)
#1. Here’s the one Ray Romano stand-up joke that has stayed with me.
Before Romano was the star of Everybody Loves Raymond, he was a stand-up, which inspired a lot of the humor and plotlines on his insanely successful sitcom. He recently released his first special in decades, Right Here, Around the Corner, on Netflix, and it’s filled with the same sort of dad humor you’d expect from this committed, harried family man.
But if Romano was never as quicksilver brilliant as Seinfeld or Dave Chappelle, at least he was a consistently funny guy who knew his audience — which was, basically, any human being who had children. That’s a large demographic.
My all-time favorite joke of his, from back in the early 1990s, is a simple one. But it’s stuck with me a long time. In fact, the older I get, the truer it seems. It’s about his then-three-year-old daughter…
“That’s the age to be: three. I’ll tell ya, I always thought, if I could go back in time, I’d want to be a teenager. [But] I’d go right to three. You can’t get happier than three. I watch my daughter, it’s incredible. The other day, she’s staring out the car window for 15 minutes, just smiling at nothing. I can’t get over it. Finally, I turn: ‘Alexandria, what are you thinking of?’ ‘Candy.’ Candy! When was the last time you could daydream about candy, folks? Try it as an adult — you can’t.”
He’s kinda right: That sort of carefree, idle enjoyment of something so simple is a lot harder to do when you’re older and have responsibilities. Nowadays, I’m too busy pining for an extra hour of sleep. Or death to my enemies.
#2. Here’s a brief primer on ‘Death With Dignity’ laws.
In Paddleton, Michael has to cross the state border to obtain the lethal prescription he needs to kill himself. The movie leaves its geography a bit vague, but Andy and Michael drive to the city of Solvang, California, which makes sense since that’s a state with so-called “Death With Dignity” laws. (By the way, the others are Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.)
Hawaii is the latest to pass such a law, which went into effect in early 2019 and allows terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to receive the prescription. And in case you wondered if the drugs are like how they’re portrayed in Paddleton, apparently they are. James Hochberg, who heads a group in Hawaii that opposed the law, has complained, “People assume that the doctor writes you a prescription for a pill. You decided you want to take it and you die. That’s not the way it works. You get 100 capsules and you empty the contents. You mix it and you wait [an] hour.” That’s basically the way it plays out in the film, and it’s clear what a cumbersome process it is. Michael and Andy empty all the pills’ contents into a cup and then add water, which gives both men a lot of opportunity to agonize over what’s about to occur.
And while this isn’t shown in the movie, before you get the prescription, according to the Death With Dignity website, “Two physicians must determine whether all … criteria have been met. The process entails two oral requests, one written request, waiting periods and other requirements.” So it’s certainly not an easy process. Before watching Paddleton, I wasn’t aware there even was such a prescription. In the film, Michael pays $3,500 for the pills, and that’s also pretty accurate. Death With Dignity says, depending on which lethal drug you receive, it can cost you up to $5,000.
That’s a weird thing to ponder: What’s the right amount of money to pay for a prescription that will kill you?
#3. You need to see The Puffy Chair.
The aforementioned The Puffy Chair may be unfamiliar to you. So now’s an excellent time to catch up on one of the singular American independent films of the 2000s.
But first you have to ask yourself: Are you okay with a movie where characters mostly just talk and the actors seemingly improvise their lines? If so, The Puffy Chair is perfect for you. This 2005 film was the breakout vehicle for writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass. Since then, they’ve become cult stars thanks to Togetherness and other uber-sensitive portraits of masculinity and family, but The Puffy Chair established their low-budget aesthetic before it became an unofficial artistic movement.
The story is simple: Failed artist Josh (Mark Duplass) and his girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton) go on a strange odyssey to hunt down an old recliner on eBay that resembles the one Josh’s dad used to have. Along the way, the couple begin to reexamine their relationship, and Josh starts to wonder where his life is going.
If that sounds like what was once called mumblecore, you’re exactly right, but what’s so rich about The Puffy Chair is that it comes by its scruffy, emotional navel-gazing honestly, examining love, commitment and adulthood with real insight. And while they’re fixtures of the mumblecore movement, the Duplass brothers always had mixed feelings about that label.
“I think the press mistakenly thought that all of these ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers were banded together in a similar ideology,” Jay Duplass once said, “but the truth is that we were all just using the same digital camera and helping each other make our movies because we were broke and we were the only idiots willing to do it. It helped for us to be, I guess, grandfathers of a movement that we didn’t create, because it put the eyes of the world on us in that moment.”
Watching The Puffy Chair now, it’s incredible how innocent it is. Nobody involved with this movie seems to think they’re launching anything, let alone an American indie trend. They’re just trying to make a film and talk about how hard relationships can be. That’s one of its eternal charms.