The past few years have become what we might consider a “Ray Romanaissance.” The Everybody Loves Raymond star has worked consistently since the finale of that show more than a decade ago, lending his voice to a handful of Ice Age movies, guest starring on a slew of other programs, and dipping his toes into drama on several series. But Romano came out of nowhere and impressed everyone with his appearance in The Big Sick, for which his performance as the concerned father of an ill daughter garnered critical acclaim. Now, Romano can be seen in Netflix’s Paddleton, an affecting dramedy that further highlights his quiet emergence as a powerful character actor.
Romano plays Andy, a slightly awkward, middle-aged loner type who lives in a modest upstairs apartment somewhere in the undisclosed outskirts of California. Below him resides also middle-aged, but significantly more relaxed Michael (Mark Duplass); together, the two share a friendly bond that doesn’t seem present anywhere else in either of their lives. They enjoy watching the same B-rate kung fu movies on loop, eating frozen pizzas, and playing “paddleton,” a made-up variant of racquetball involving bouncing a ball off an abandoned drive-in theater wall and into a rusted metal barrel. It’s a relationship that’s so close-knit and personal that the two are often mistaken as family or lovers. The relationship is strained, however, as early as the first scene when Michael is diagnosed with a terminal cancer diagnosis and plans to avoid prolonged suffering by ending his life early via a legal euthanasia medication.
Part road trip comedy (the nearest pharmacy that offers the medication is six hours away) and part cancer drama, Paddleton focuses almost exclusively on Romano and Duplass, and in doing so crafts a wholesome, genuine example of love between two friends. Duplass largely plays the straight man of the duo, with Michael taking his diagnosis and inevitable future in stride far more level-headedly than Andy. With his mastery within the mumblecore movement, Duplass is right at home with this kind of role and gives Michael a lived-in quality. Even beyond the scruffy hair and ‘70s mustache that almost seems to age him up several years, he exudes maturity through the determination to follow through with his decision, even in the quietest of moments. His climactic scene, a rare outburst of emotion, is unexpected and painfully true to life.
But it’s Romano who impresses most of all. In many ways, Paddleton is Andy’s story, and so Romano brings his all to give the character the arc required for this story to work. Romano’s comedic chops remain heavily present throughout, with Andy’s fussy neurotics making for several laugh-out-loud moments, but beneath many of his quirks, Romano infuses a heartbreaking sense of vulnerability and fear. Andy, caught between fulfilling his only friend’s wishes and keeping him around for as long as possible, is almost childlike in his reaction to a suddenly strained friendship: his stalling attempts are humorous on the exterior – buying a child’s safe for the medicine and guarding it against Michael, or withholding the answer to a hangman game printed on Michael’s favorite shirt – but they come with an impending sense of loneliness, and heartbreaking conclusions for each. Like Duplass, Romano often conveys these emotions without words, and with sad glances and reserved physical tics instead.
Coming from director Alex Lehmann, who previously worked with Duplass on Blue Jay -like that film, Lehmann and Duplass share writing credit, though this script contains little to no actual dialogue. Instead, Lehmann and Duplass crafted the central concept and left the talking points in the hands of Romano and Duplass’ own talents, and the wonderful chemistry they share. Lehmann and Duplass smartly avoid leaning too far into either saccharine or punishingly sad territory, and settle on a middle ground that packs the same kind of emotional punch of either of those approaches, but with an extra dose of realism. There’s a mundanity to Lehmann’s direction – with simple cinematography and a quiet, acoustic score, neither of which draw attention to themselves very often – but it all falls right in line with the simplicity of Andy and Michael’s story. Adding flashy stylistic choices would only detract from the intimacy of the central pairing, and so Lehmann wisely avoids doing so.
It’s a kind of direction whose efficiency makes you cross your fingers for some kind of third act twist – perhaps Michael is miraculously healed, or chooses not to proceed with self-euthanization after an emotional, reflective speech – but progressively makes it clear that this is not that kind of film. It’s grounded in reality, and though that comes with a punishingly real sense of melancholy, it also comes with a payoff that feels genuine. Paddleton tells a familiar story, but one whose exploration of mortality and friendship makes it feel as new as can be.