We can choose our friends, but we don’t get to choose our family. Rocky Balboa gets a bit of both with his pal and brother-in-law, Paulie. He seems to be at peace with this, though it is often hard to understand why. While the Rocky series begins with the two already in mismatched buddy mode, one gets the idea that if young Rocky knew his most constant and long-lasting life companion would be this squatty, rude loudmouth, he might feel just a bit shortchanged by fate.
But Rocky sticks by Paulie through thick and thin, which means we’re stuck with him too. It could be a lot worse. Like Rocky, we may find Paulie annoying, offensive, and sometimes downright mean. Nevertheless, he does offer the series a second beating heart, clogged and rancid as it is.
If Rocky represents the best of us, Paulie represents the rest of us. He doesn’t work out, he drinks like a fish, he judges everyone, he doesn’t give a shit what you think and will tell you. In Rocky he ruins Thanksgiving in a gross and uncomfortable fit of anger. In Rocky II he gleefully takes over Rocky’s mob enforcer job. I don’t think Rocky III is a racist movie, but Paulie’s racist as shit in it. The film also begins with Paulie on a drunken, jealous rampage that includes busting up a Rocky pinball table and taking a swing at Rocky himself. In Rocky IV he falls in love with a robot (this one’s not so bad). In Rocky V he loses all of Rocky’s money. In Rocky Balboa he seems hateful and barely coherent at almost every turn. There is little doubt that we’re dealing with an asshole here.
Even as the series takes its turn toward ‘80s cartoon nonsense, Paulie is there to be a jerk to everyone. It gets to the point in Rocky III where Apollo Creed can no longer hide his irritation with Paulie and confusion over why he was even invited to Rocky’s training montages in the first place. But that doesn’t mean Paulie misses out on the series’ cartoon nonsense action. He suddenly grows dumb catch phrases like a sitcom character. Rocky pulls him into a pool in Rocky III. He slips in snow while bitching in Rocky IV. He’s still Paulie, but now he’s joke-worthy. They made him fit the mutating tone without actually changing him all that much.
That’s kind of the secret to Paulie. Stallone never betrays the character. He can fall in some snow and learn to love a robot, but he always has that belligerent edge. Burt Young came to us pre-aged, so when we see him as an old man in Rocky Balboa it’s not such a shock. Rocky can go from a doughy lunk to a lean muscle machine to an overstuffed man-sausage monstrosity, but Paulie never changes.
And this includes the most important part of Paulie - his love for Rocky. Pretty much every movie dares you (sometimes it’s a double-dog dare) to hate Paulie, then gives him some small moment of kindness that brings us back and makes us understand why Rocky keeps him around. It takes Tommy Gun hurting Paulie in Rocky V to convince Rocky to risk everything and finally kick his ass. We kind of get it. This is especially true of Rocky Balboa, which finds Paulie just as rude as ever but also full of regret and sadness for the life he lead.
Paulie always feels peripheral and unnecessary, but these movies would be very different without him. He offers a contrast to Rocky, and an example of Rocky’s altruism and lack of judgement of others, not to mention Rocky’s need for family. Meanwhile, he keeps the middle Rocky movies anchored to the series’ grimy origins way more than Rocky himself does. Yes, even when being served beer by a robot. Paulie never quite blends in with Rocky’s mansion, and that’s as it should be. Knowing how bad Stallone can be when making movie decisions, I’m kind of shocked he kept Paulie around for all six movies. But I’m so glad he did.