Paddleton is an Affecting Portrait of Loneliness in a Hyper-Isolated World

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Paddleton is an Affecting Portrait of Loneliness in a Hyper-Isolated World

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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few minutes into their six-hour road trip, Andy (a terrific Ray Romano), a middle-aged socially awkward curmudgeonly man makes an announcement. “I had some oatmeal, so I’m gonna need a bathroom in two hours,” he tells Michael (an understated Mark Duplass), his neighbour and the trip’s de-facto driver. “But you also had a second coffee, so maybe 90 minutes?”, Michael notes.

It’s a banal exchange between two misfits who have – and seem to want – no one but each other and yet it is steeped in the kind of gentle intimacy that has come to define long-term lovers or committed companions. On paper and according to the labels of social conduct, Andy and Michael, can’t claim to be either – their bond is destined to be relegated to the one shared by friendly neighbours. But at the same time, the affectionate intimacies that mark their life together are impossible to achieve in any relationship that doesn’t involve being each other’s constants – a partner in every sense of the word.

Much of Alex Lehman’s deeply moving Paddleton, a dramedy about terminal illness, assisted suicide, and the grief that accompanies letting go of that person who makes loneliness bearable, is built on such unassuming moments. Moments that challenge the common perception of what really constitutes love and who gets the luxury of being remembered as a couple. Moments that offer a peek at tender expressions of affection – like agreeing to take an impromptu detour to an Ostrich farm or insisting on paying for the pills that would end the other’s life – that otherwise remain as footnotes in front of the grand gestures.

What better balm can there be to loneliness than all-consuming companionship?

The film itself foreshadows the tragedy the odd couple will find their lives enmeshed in, by opening with Michael’s cancer diagnosis. As the nurse informs Michael about the inevitable, it’s Andy who loses his cool, acting out and demanding detailed – and optimistic – answers, as if it were his days that are numbered. It prompts even the nurse to inquire about how they’re related. Like he tells the nurse, “they’re neighbours” but what he fails to articulate – and what Lehman ably uses Paddleton to depict – is that their relationship is so much more.

Early on in Paddleton, it’s made evident why Michael and Andy drift towards each other: They’re both loners, socially handicapped, and find comfort in routine domesticity. Their time together comprises innumerable pizza dinners, geeking out over a shared interest in a kung-fu film called Death Punch, and playing a totally made-up game of “paddleton” with each other. Shattering their comfortable codependency is Michael’s wish to end his life before cancer gets the best of him. He enlists Andy – the only person he confides in about his plan – to help him die after taking a set of prescribed pills. But that can only happen after the duo embark on a six-hour road trip to procure them and confront their vulnerabilities, regrets, and limited time with each other.

Paddleton

Andy and Michael share the kind of connection that could command entire fandoms had it been between a man and a woman.

Image credit: Netflix

Andy and Michael share the kind of connection that could command entire fandoms had it been between a man and a woman – a point that Lehman drives home deftly. Through the film’s taut 90 minutes, Lehman eschews dispensing one singular label that would unfairly shackle the length and breadth of Andy and Michael’s all-consuming companionship: On more than one occasion, the viewer is left hanging on whether Michael and Andy are indeed lovers, whose feelings for each other might be thwarted by the expectations of masculine upbringing and their inability to express themselves. In doing so, Lehman succeeds in managing to distract the viewer from being exclusively preoccupied with the “Will they, won’t they?” conundrum and instead have them relish an affecting portrait of loneliness in a hyper-isolated world.

That portrait of isolation hits its peak in a vulnerable climax that lasts for the film’s penultimate 30 minutes when they finally express themselves to each other, against a racing clock: Andy finally reveals to Michael that he gifted him a sweatshirt with a puzzle that has no answer because he didn’t want him to be upset like he usually is after they solve the crossword puzzle. If he never guessed the answer, he’d never get upset, Andy reasons with Michael, reminding him about the consistency of his own emotions.

Most people look for a romantic partner to bear a witness to their lives – but Michael and Andy found each other to remind themselves that their lives are even worth witnessing. As Paddleton posits in the heart-wrenching final minutes, what better balm can there be to loneliness than all-consuming companionship?

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