Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig
(Universal; US theatrical: 18 Mar 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 18 Mar 2011 (General release); 2011)
It’s clear from the opening frames of the new comedy Paul that writers/actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost know their nerd. They can channel their own inner geek better than most near middle-aged men and do so with a nod to those who share their specific mania. Ever since Spaced showed their penchant for all things genre obsessive, they have turned their tendencies into some of the best cinematic satire (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) ever created. While this latest sci-fi spoof is not quite in the league of those other masterworks, Edgar Wright replacement Greg Mottola does do his best Stephen Spielberg on ‘srooms impression, making the whole R-rated experience both raunchy and ridiculously fun.
Pegg is English proto-dweeb Graeme Willy who fancies himself a comic book artist while Frost portrays pal Clive Gollings, the wannabe writer of the pair. They are off to Comic-Con to experience every basement dwelling dork’s wildest speculative fantasy. Afterwards, they rent an RV and head out into the American Southwest to visit famous alien landing sites. En route, they come face to face with Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an extraterrestrial that is escaping the ‘prison’ that is Area 51. On the planet for nearly 50 years, he wants to return home, and needs the help of these bumbling believers to get him to the preplanned rendezvous point. Along the way, they peak the interests of government agents (including Jason Bateman and Bill Hader) and a religious fanatic (Kristen Wiig) who just can’t believe in anything outside her strict dogmatic theology.
Paul is a film perfectly suited to its subject matter. It treats the entire post-modern alien contact movie with grace and a grinning tongue in cheek. Pegg and Frost have produced the kind of screenplay that will have unsuspecting audiences laughing while synced up members of the like-minded spaz squad are splitting from ear to ear. This is the rare combination of current and old school spoofing, a mixture of F-bombs and homages that never seems stale or silly. Pegg and Frost always seem to find the right balance between the reference and the ridiculous, cluing us in on what they are trying while always remembering to entertain. Yes, some of the material is so inside that it’s almost impossible to see, but for the most part, the film succeeds on all the levels it attempts.
Greg Mottola is an interesting choice here, considering he brings a lot of Friend of Apatow baggage (and comedic road company) with him. While Superbad was more of a post-millennial prototype than anything else, his amazing Adventureland argued for someone capable of great range and depth. Mottola gets the allure of nostalgia, why memories often have more impact than the realities of daily life. He bathes the entirety of Paul in a patina of cinematic recall, channeling everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to ET, while Pegg and Frost are busy throwing in everything else (big brownie points for the Mac and Me shout-out!). The film has all the beats of a late ‘70s/early ‘80s blockbuster while mixing in a bit of the smarm that’s come to control most of current comedy.
This is not a flawless film, however, especially in some of the narrative contrivances. Had the boys standard collaborator—the aforementioned Mr. Wright—been on hand to take on the directing duties, he may have found a fresh way to make the constant callback threats work. The one note rednecks we meet near the beginning of the film are consistently haunting the plot, their unnecessary presence part of a long standing UK vs. USA dynamic. Similarly, the government goons, led by Bateman, bring little to the table except forward motion, making sure the movie never really settles in and goes completely nerd on us. There’s an obvious bow to the needs of the typical action adventure here, elements that play both pro and con with Pegg and Frost’s plans. We cheer for Paul, just not in the way the movie always wants.
Which brings us to the interesting choice of casting Rogen as the voice of the alien. Considering he’s done other amiable voice work in the past (Monsters vs. Aliens, Horton Hears a Who, Kung Fu Panda) it’s not a left field decision, but just like working with Mottola, it does come with a lot of precarious preconceptions. Paul is supposed to be a hero - an unlikely one, but a hero none the less. We need to root for him and care about his fate, and Rogen finds the right tone to make that happen. But we can’t help but feel that our friendly little ET is also a bit more “frisky” than he seems. We keep waiting for the expletive filled face off, or the moment when sex becomes an obsession. Luckily, it never really arrives, though one imagines it was considered.
Along with a last act revisit of the 1950s prologue and a running gag about a depressing author and his litany of usually titled novels, there are some pat aspects of Paul that just don’t gel. Instead of going for the heartstrings, the script needed to stay buried deep within the head of the resident Star Wars savant. In fact, one could argue that Pegg and Frost pulled back a bit here, failing to find the same Hellsapoppin’ heft they uncovered in both Shaun and Fuzz. Granted, the friendly extraterrestrial on the lam has a lot less to draw from than the zombie film or the cop thriller, but there is a wealth of sci-fi satire left unexplored here. By drawing the focus down to a single source (read: Spielberg) and an accompanying mindset, Paul avoids the epic while remaining highly evocative. This is a very good film. One imagines though that it could have been great… very great indeed.