In the very first scene of Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton, a middle-aged man is diagnosed with stomach cancer. There is no cure. Michael (Mark Duplass) will die soon. For some reason, though, Michael doesn’t look upset. He looks somewhat relieved. A few seconds later, we know why. Michael’s best friend and neighbour, Andy (Ray Romano), who is with him at the hospital, launches a personal attack on the doctor. He is lashing out. Andy, who is older but no wiser, looks shaken. He would look crestfallen, too, if he didn’t feel the need to be the poker-faced funny guy. Michael watches him, with the affection reserved by a father about to leave his ill-tempered son home alone for a long business trip.
Michael is relieved, not because he will finally catch a break from his overbearing and needy old friend. He is relieved because Andy will finally be relieved of his own neediness and overbearingness. And perhaps even his oldness. Andy, in many ways, will be set free.
Paddleton is a disarming dramedy. The “bromance” internalises the defense mechanism of modern masculinity – that is, it uses goofy humour to disguise the existential drama of human introspection. It is about all the things soon-to-be-middle-aged men like myself fear about: over-dependence on one person, comfort in dry routine, heightened social awkwardness, lame hobbies, whiling away the years, an asexual existence, frozen pizza and a looming sense of loneliness. Naturally, I find myself writing about these fears as Andy, and not Michael, in the film. Attachment, after all, is an inherently selfish emotion; the fear of losing a loved one invariably trumps the fear of watching them struggle with the inevitability of losing themselves.
Paddleton, most importantly, is about one more thing: escapism. Michael isn’t as allergic to the outer world as his friend; he was once married, and has a few colleagues that he hangs out with. He likes Andy’s company because it is comfortable and there is no pretense between two like-minded nerds. They bond over old kung fu movies, juvenile ramblings and stunted adulthood. But this is not all he has. Andy, however, is the more invested one, the territorial one. He is hostile to the one stranger who tries to befriend them on their road trip. He guards Michael, protects him, because he wants to protect himself.
Most obsessive men turn to love or substance addiction to escape their own shortcomings in life. But Andy has turned to friendship. He is the kind of loner who might have been mercilessly bullied in school. As a result, he isn’t confident enough with the opposite sex, and is just about functional enough to work in an office that enables monosyllabic reactions; he is too sheltered to use alcohol or drugs as his escape. And so, he uses his relationship with Michael as a crutch to compensate for his sociopathic ways. He is not gay; he is in love with the idea of a companion rather than the companion itself.
Perhaps the most perceptive – and disturbing – aspect of Paddleton is Michael’s awareness of Andy’s ignorance. The younger man has subtly sensed that he is, ironically, holding back his older friend from experiencing a fuller life. When a female hotel owner slides into a hot tub next to Andy, Michael even slinks away with a smile, despite Andy’s pleading eyes; he hopes the woman teaches him a thing or two about romantic (or any) expression. When Andy avoids her, Michael isn’t surprised. He knows that Andy is latching onto him as if he were a lifeboat in a choppy sea. He only hopes that the prospect of deflating the life out of his own boat might force Andy to learn how to swim. Which is why he doesn’t fight the cancer; he insists on a lethal prescription, and on creating a journey out of his impending demise.
He wants Andy by his side through this ordeal so that the escapist confronts the infeasibility of his own escape. He perhaps wants Andy to crush those pills and watch him die so that he is left in absolutely no doubt about the permanence of mortality. So that he has nowhere to go, and everywhere to go. So that he doesn’t just stop to chat with the apartment’s new tenant, but also notices that the tenant is a single mother. And so that, in the very last scene of Paddleton, a middle-aged man is cured of a cancer.