Dir: Alex Lehmann
Cast: Ray Romano, Mark Duplass
Young grief is devastating, old grief is inevitable. But middle-aged grief is neither here nor there, like an awkward expression of sadness that manifests itself through the ambiguity of adult men in khaki shorts playing a ridiculous tennis-squash-golf hybrid sport with great verve. It is unsure and untimely – a parental mix of shock and pragmatism, a sentence composed of custom-made words and needy banter rather than lofty dialogue. Or like a road trip that overlooks depth and introspection in favour of an unplanned stop at an ostrich farm full of wrong trivia and a seedy Danish-style motel. This grief is nothing and everything.
Middle-aged Michael is diagnosed with cancer. Middle-aged Andy, his neighbour and best friend, is worried. If one of them dies, the other will have to live. Both of them are single, white, red-blooded men who are in love with being lonely…together. They also love their ready-to-heat pizzas, khaki shorts and kitschy Kung-fu movies. They speak about nothing – nothing remarkable, clever, thoughtful or even half-sensible. The childish game they’ve invented, Paddleton, in which they smack a tennis ball against a rickety drive-in wall for it to ricochet into an empty barrel, is an extension of their nothing-ship.
Ray Romano, who spent a decade of his acting career immortalizing the language of masculine nothingness in the man-child-specific sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, finds an able partner in co-actor (and, more importantly, co-writer) Mark Duplass to humanize his stoney half-sentenced affections. Not unlike Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky ramblings, it becomes a defence mechanism that is sad precisely because of how funny it tries to be.
Paddleton effectively unites the protagonists of two separate “loser” universes and forces us to recognize that there’s nothing more affecting than loners trying to come to terms with the fact that they might have to be lonely all over again. It is a beautifully (un)written tale of male bonding and its penchant for profound randomness masquerading as sentiment. Everything Romano mutters is timed to tickle, but here it’s also for attention – and validation – from the beta-male of this relationship. They are so close that Michael entrusts in Andy the responsibility of helping him work towards a lethal prescription. Their conversations are so airy and air-headed that it is impossible not to feel for Andy when death is the next topic. Like a comedy paddling distractedly towards the waterfall of tragedy, Andy is at odds with the emotional palette of his own life.
The final ten minutes are heartbreaking; I don’t remember the last time I wept so hard at a screen flashing images onto my face. The final ten minutes are an amalgamation of young, old and middle-aged feelings – bromance, or brotherhood, or closeted kinship, or whatever the movies like to call it these days. But Paddleton primarily ends as a reminder that grief has more to do with companionship than love, with comfort than camaraderie. The chasm between the two states of existing is as wide as an abandoned drive-in wall that allows two misfits to christen their abandonment issues.