Friendship is often funny. Mortality can be. Cancer typically isn’t. What about a goofy friendship with terminal cancer? That’s a big subject for a little movie, but “Paddleton,” Alex Lehmann’s serious-minded comedy about the dark existential cloud over an odd bromance between apartment neighbors Ray Romano and Mark Duplass, is a surprisingly tender and humorous shuffle down a weighty road.
“Paddleton” wastes no time with its juggling act. Lehmann, who wrote the movie with Duplass — they previously made Lehmann’s feature directorial debut, “Blue Jay” — starts with the kind of “whaa?” reaction shot of schlubs Michael (Duplass) and Andy (Romano) one might expect from a hapless buddy flick. Only this is a hospital room, and the looks on their faces are in response to the worst of news regarding Michael’s CT scan: a large mass, lesions, more tests. Andy fumblingly tries to play reporter to the cagey doctor, but the word arrives soon after: stomach cancer, and the outlook for Michael is grim.
But with this diagnosis, and the way these friends talk around it, we see just how close these two loners in sneakers and khaki shorts are: they love puzzles, jokey extrapolations, rewatching the same cheesy kung fu movie (something called “Death Punch”) munching on oven pizza, and playing a made-up game that gives the movie its title. Using old tennis racquets, they hit a ball against the back of a disused drive-in screen and hope it bounces into a strategically placed trash can. Middle-aged beer pong? Lo-fi racquetball? That Michael and Andy have found a bonding activity amid concrete weeds in an abandoned lot away from people, says something about how this pair of life’s bystanders — Michael a copy store clerk, Andy an office drone — embrace a hermetically sealed bud-ship that successfully avoids the world at large.
That makes the intrusion of impermanence, of course, into a defining experience for these misfits. Michael, played with a nicely unforced serenity by Duplass, wants to go out on his terms and at a time of his choosing, which means an overnight road trip to the one pharmacy that will provide the necessary prescription. (That it’s in the Danish-decorated tourist town of Solvang briefly gives the movie the air of a mumblecore “Sideways.”)
Michael’s Zen-like vibe is in contrast to Andy’s clumsy stabs at asserting control over his emotions — wanting to pay for the drugs, but trying to keep them from Michael, reacting harshly to friendly strangers taking up precious hangout time, then misreading his friend’s napping. This is where “Paddleton” finds a legitimately naturalistic humor: in the heartfelt reality of strickenness and denial. You might laugh. You might wince. You might just feel for them. But whatever your reaction, it’s as human as theirs.
Andy is a perfect role for Romano, who brings every ounce of his basement-throated, dolorous comic timing to bear on what is, to be honest, in its surface trappings of couch-wise loserdom, a brutal role on which to pile full-on sorrow. But Romano’s is anything but a brutal portrait, and when “Paddleton” rounds the corner toward dryly amusing confessionals, unspoken acceptance and pill-assisted finality, it’s the “Everybody Loves Raymond” star — always an underrated actor — who lands the sweet, genuine poignancy of this seriocomic love story.
The Duplass universe of willfully undercooked indies is an easy target when your hope for movies is that art wins the day. But to fight against “Paddleton” and its no-frills, in-the-moment mission of mercy is, ultimately, useless. There might even be a wry lesson in this simple two-hander: If your tendency is to view Michael’s and Andy’s stunted existence as an abyss already, director/co-writer Lehmann offers a uniquely graceful clarifier to that old adage. Better to have lived sadly over pizza and bad movies and shared it meaningfully than to have never had a private language with someone at all.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 22, Vintage Los Feliz; also on Netflix