Cancer barely fazes the low-key, funny friends of ‘Paddleton’

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A cancer patient (Mark Duplass, right) is guided through treatment by his friend and neighbor (Ray Romano) in “Paddleball.” | Netflix

Andy and Michael are a typical middle-aged couple.

They have an effortless rhythm with one another. A verbal shorthand. A level of comfort where they can curl up on the sofa and watch an old movie and never say a word to one another, and then retire for the night.

Sure, they bicker and they get on each other’s nerves, but there’s no doubt about it — they love one another.

Thing is, Andy and Michael aren’t in a romantic relationship, although folks sometimes make that mistake, e.g., a doctor delivering bad news to Michael.

They’re neighbors. Friends. “I live on top of him,” Andy explains to the doctor, which really doesn’t clear things up.

Andy means that literally. He has the unit above Michael’s in a small apartment complex, and over the years these two single, lonely, quirky fellows have become best pals — heating up frozen pizzas for dinner nearly every night, watching kung-fu movies and playing an invented game called “Paddleton,” which involves smacking a tennis ball against the wall of an old drive-in theater and trying to score points by banking the ball into an oil drum.

Directed by Alex Lehmann with a deft and indie-casual touch from a script by Lehmann and Mark Duplass, “Paddleton” is a low-key, sweet and heart-tugging buddy movie.

Duplass is the deadpan, mustachioed Michael and Ray Romano is the eccentric Andy, who seems to be on the spectrum or at least about a step away from being on the spectrum, given his obsession with the knit cap he’s always sporting, and the occasional disproportionate blow-up, e.g., when Michael burns the frozen pizza one night and Andy reacts as if Michael has set the entire apartment complex ablaze.

Duplass, as usual, delivers authentic, quietly effective work. Romano, on the heels of his award-worthy performance in “The Big Sick,” again demonstrates he has a comedic/dramatic skill set far more complex than his always excellent but mostly mainstream sitcom star turn on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

When Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides that down the road, he is going to take a drug cocktail and go gently into that good night.

“Hospital, tubes, bloating, I don’t want any part of that,” says Michael. “I wanna make some pizza, I wanna watch some movies, I wanna play Paddleton …

“So I’m thinking before it gets bad, I want to end it.”

Michael asks Andy to help him, and of course Andy says yes, and for a long time that’s about as intimate and emotional as these two get about the whole thing, because they don’t exactly have one of those hug-it-out bromances.

There’s a road trip, and a woman in a hot tub, and a mystery involving a certain T-shirt, and some terrific, off-beat running jokes, e.g., Andy is forever rehearsing a halftime speech he hopes to deliver someday, even though he’s not a football coach. (“We’re going to lose, but I’m proud of you guys!”)

At one point the dying Michael asks Andy if he’d like Michael to try to contact him once Michael is gone. “I could send you a signal. Push the water glass a little bit, leave you a note in a foggy mirror.”

This is how these two guys talk. They are funny because they’re almost never trying to be funny, they’re sympathetic because they’re almost never asking for sympathy, and one of them is dying and one of them will be there until the end, and they’re both lucky to have found one another.

‘Paddleton’

★★★

Netflix presents a film directed by Alex Lehmann and written byLehmann and Mark Duplass. No MPAA rating. Running time: 89 minutes. Now showing on Netflix.

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