Review: Paddleton (2019)

Paddleton is a Netflix film about two men with a close friendship coping together as one discovers they have terminal cancer – the film coldly opens with that awkward discovery, as Ray Romano’s Andy Freeman questions the evasive doctor while Mark Duplass’s Michael Thompson quietly takes in his suddenly reduced lifespan.

Paddleton is one of many movies released every year that tries to coast entirely off an emotional premise backed by high quality but not especially noteworthy performances. While I value film for its ability to capture emotions, Paddleton is one that feels particularly lazy – a simple appeal without craftsmanship.

Much of Paddleton is shot in simple medium close-ups, repetitive shot composition to the point of being grating. So many scenes in this movie look like any other scene. None of the people involved seemed to take the time to consider how they could more effectively use the medium; for them, the camera seems to be an obstacle in the way of telling their story.

There’s some acclaim going around for the film’s improvisational acting; that Ray Romano and Mark Duplass lend an air of realism through their natural conversations. And, I will admit, these two actors do a fine job with the material – but that does not excuse the lack of planning in other regards. This is the blandest of bland movies, every technical element merely in service to the narrative instead of lending its own emotional potential.

I’m certain plenty of people will watch this movie and be moved – with such a theme, it’s something most people can find a connection to in some way. To me, it feels largely exploitative. This is the type of story you will encounter several times over in a freshman Creative Writing class, written by students unsure of their abilities but aware that certain elements inherently have resonance. It’s hard to criticize such works for being otherwise shallow without appearing to make light of a serious situation. But why settle for such base emotions when there are more masterful takes on the same subject? Cinema is an artform; the story is perhaps the backbone of most films, but that’s all it is – you can’t have a body with just a spine.

It has a few pleasant moments; male bonding is rarely handled with such delicacy, and the two leads do play off each other well. A years-long game of hangman, a shared obsession with an overlooked Kung Fu movie, there’s a lot of charm and specificity to the characters that make them feel real. But a lot of these elements are overshadowed by how quickly the film reaches its inevitable conclusion – Michael decides from the beginning that he is going to commit suicide before the cancer weakens him. The second act falters under this weight. Romano’s Andy pathetically attempts to fight back against this choice, but it’s clearly the course of the film.

For those who manage to get invested, the final act will get hard. But nothing within the establishing narrative moments of the technical and stylistic elements suggest anything worth that emotion. It’s an impactful shortcut taken by seemingly novice filmmakers who didn’t want to invest too much time into structure – the type of people who believe the camera is more of an obstacle than a boon. There are dozens of better movies with similar themes that also put in stylistic effort – or if not that, at least have consistently stronger writing and better performances. Why bother with Paddleton when films like 50/50 and The Big Sick exist?

2 Stars Out of 5

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