‘Paddleton’ captures the relationship we don’t have words for: Review

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‘Paddleton’ captures the relationship we don’t have words for: Review

Spoilers for Netflix’s Paddleton lie ahead.

I ship Ray Romano and Mark Duplass. Exactly how I ship them is where things get complicated. 

The marketing for Netflix’s new tragicomedy Paddleton paints the picture of an uninspired buddy comedy. View the trailer and you’ll recognize its narrative: Two friends, one with terminal cancer, embark on a road trip. Their advertised journey promises hijinks and tearful goodbyes, all likely forgettable. It’s seemingly an obvious pass.

What lies beneath the terrible promotion and equally terrible title is one of the most heartbreaking and nuanced on-screen relationships I have ever seen — the exact nature of which I struggled to pin down.

The chemistry between main characters Andy (Romano) and Michael (Duplass) is undeniable. When we first meet the pair, they describe themselves, through painful stammering to Michael’s diagnosing doctor, as “uh, neighbors.” It’s clear that there is more between them, but it’s a reality neither seems entirely comfortable acknowledging. 

As we learn more about Andy and Michael’s shared life, we are made familiar with their daily rituals of reheated pizza, kung fu movies, dry exchanges, and games of “paddleton,” a racquetball-like sport that they made up. Their level of their intimacy is best captured in one of their early road trip conversations:

“I had some oatmeal, so I’m gonna need a bathroom in two hours,” Andy notes. 

“But you also had a second coffee, so maybe 90 minutes?” asks Michael.

By all accounts, these two look, feel, and act as a romantic couple. Except they’re not.

Andy and Michael are easy to fall in love with. Through kind-hearted banter and subtle adoring smiles, the two share an intimate compassion that is quietly intoxicating and rarely spoken. By all accounts, these two look, feel, and act as a romantic couple and it’s easy to respond to them in kind.

Except they’re not together, at least not in “that way.” 

For as much as I spent the latter half of the film rooting for Andy and Michael to kiss, very little of Paddleton implies that there is a romantic relationship between them, and even less to suggest that there is a sexual one. Other characters unfamiliar with the inner workings of the pair’s bond make similar mistakes. Questions like, “Do you want two queen-size beds or one king-size bed?” crop up more than once.

While it would be insensitive to force queerness onto two characters who don’t explicitly convey that type of connection (or have had a creator step in to do it for them), it feels equally thoughtless to file away their meaningful connection under the umbrella of “friendship” or the trite “bromance.” Instead, their bond feels most like the “my person” label of Grey’s Anatomy, known to many who have felt a platonic bond so strong no commonly used word or phrase adequately captures it.

The closest Michael and Andy come to labeling their feelings for one another occurs during a screaming match, in which Michael shouts, “I’m the dying guy!”

At a loss for words, Andy replies, “I’m the other guy!”

The stifled exchange of feelings doesn’t seem like a sign of repressed homosexual attraction (although a case could likely be made that it is just that), but more a glimpse behind the curtain into the bashful tenderness of this very special yet difficult to describe relationship.

Later in the film, Andy expresses wishing he had taken off work to spend more time with Michael, a thought that highlights the confusing nature of their connection. It’s tricky to imagine conveying to one’s boss a relationship that isn’t validated by the universal acceptability of romantic love, but equally frustrating to see two characters so deeply connected holding each other at arm’s length.

The film’s end brings the inevitable tragedy that comes with any story built on the promise of loss. Michael dies as Andy holds his hand, muffling his own pain to put Michael at ease. As a viewer, I grappled with wishing not only that the two could have shared more time, but could have also been given a word or phrase fitting of their moving history.

I can’t say a suitable term for this relationship comes easily to mind, but I’ve never seen a better example of it on screen. So for now, and in spite of it truly being a terrible title, I guess we’ll just have to call it (and them) a “paddleton.” After all, we have to call them something.

Paddleton is now streaming on Netflix.

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