It’s easy to see why UK comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost connect with an appreciative cult audience. Like Kevin Smith before them, they probably strike a lot of nerds as one of their own: normal-looking blokes with self-taught expertise in any number of movie genres. Their Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, made with director Edgar Wright, were unmistakable nerd feats, filtering goofy Englishness through well-observed genre conventions.
With Paul, now on DVD, they take a break from Wright, instead enlisting smart American comedy director Greg Mottola for an American road-trip through Area 51 country. The boys play Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost), a couple of English nerds on holiday in the United States: they begin the film at Comic-Con, and sent out to visit UFO hotspots in a rented RV. On their way, they witness a car crash, and their close encounter with a suspiciously familiar-looking but irreverent-acting alien, Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), soon turns into a road-trip mission to help the creature get home, E.T.-style. The trio also picks up Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a religious woman whose belief system is shattered by Paul.
The setting and the phone-home plot engine gives Pegg and Frost, who also wrote the script, plenty of room to play with their beloved science fiction. Yet even with a story that’s essentially a nerd/stoner version of Spielberg’s seminal friendly-alien picture, this isn’t a full-on genre riff in the same vein as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz; its characters are even more genre-aware, enough to question why Paul looks so much like the archetypal skinny, bulbous-headed alien of cheap pop culture (the clever answer: his image has been fed to the public by the government for the past forty years). There was similar reflexivity in Hot Fuzz, where Frost’s character was a small-time cop as well as a cop-movie aficionado, but that movie committed to its characters and conceit with more zeal; Paul is more of a self-conscious amalgam of light spoofs and hat-tips.
This may let down some of their hardcore fans, but it’s not inconceivable that Pegg and Frost would merely make a charming, ambling comedy. As a duo, they’re funny and likable, especially when engaging in unabashed male bonding – here, more than ever, their buddy chemistry is based on how much they like each other, not obvious contrasts – but their actual style as comic performers isn’t particularly well-developed, and their default persona is basically just nice slacker blokes. They’re more inclined to pull faces, or bits where they scream or faint in terror, than, say, Bill Hader, who plays one of the government agents in semi-clueless pursuit of Paul and is constantly finding new, weird angles on guys who don’t know quite to wield their authority (something he’s explored before for Mottola in Superbad and Adventureland).
The Frost/Pegg comic acumen, then, is more dependent on writing and directing than performing, and Paul, while not exactly a bottom-drawer Pegg script, isn’t career-best work; it’s more like middle-drawer. Luckily, Mottola, one of the more technically sound studio comedy directors now working, shoots desert vistas and imitation-Spielberg flashlight beams with flair; this is another in his line of cinematic-looking comedies, even though it’s spoofier than the sincere tribute J.J. Abrams performs in Super 8.
Mottola also has different comic rhythms, more naturalistic and dialogue-based, and less conceptual than previous Pegg/Frost pictures. This makes them an odd if sometimes complementary match when exploring fan culture: Pegg and Frost provided the copious Star Wars and Spielberg references; Mottola secured alt-comics titan Daniel Clowes to draw a fake comic-book cover. That sort of running-gag minutiae – fake comics covers, made-up sci-fi authors (summed up in the short DVD feature “Who the Hell Is Adam Shadowchild?”), elaborate nonsensical swears from the liberated Ruth – is of obvious importance for the filmmakers, moreso than constructing elaborate set pieces, fully-developed emotional arcs, or other elements of screenwriting handbooks. Paul isn’t heartless (it’s even a bit sentimental); it just puts an unusual amount of its heart into throwaway jokes and nerdy details.
The film is at its best when it allows two boys, a girl, and an alien to screw around and make those jokes, faltering when it betrays that simplicity. The script links together a pointless chain of pursuits: multiple government agents, plus Ruth’s God-fearing dad (John Carroll Lynch), a mysterious government head (Sigourney Weaver), and then a late addition to the good guys: Tara (Blythe Danner), who Paul met when she was a child. These characters aren’t all a waste (Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, and Jason Bateman are all hilarious as the agents) and some of the movie’s shorter cameos are a lot of fun. But the swollen cast prods the movie toward incident when its character-based digressions are funnier.
Given the thin but overcrowded storyline, Paul isn’t a movie that demands the extended unrated cut included on the DVD release. The filmmakers don’t seem to think so, either – their commentary is only on the theatrical version, and contains no wistful references to a preferred longer version. Offhand, it’s difficult to tell where the extra six minutes of the extended version come in: a few more inventive swear-word malapropisms from Wiig here, a wisecrack from Rogen there. Those in search of more Frost/Pegg material should just listen to the commentary on the theatrical version, where they lead the discussion with jokes and dry lies (including a running claim that various cast and crew members were “blinded” after the shooting of one particularly difficult scene). Mottola, for his part, is quieter but jokes about his young daughter not liking the movie because it’s “too mainstream, too broad.”
Doubtless some of their cult audience will agree. But despite the Comic-Con trappings, Pegg and Frost are spoofing something decidedly mainstream; E.T. remains one of the most popular movies of all time. In a big year for eighties nostalgia, Paul fits with more earnest exercises like Super 8 and the Wright-produced, Frost-costarring Attack the Block as a welcome, if minor, comic B-side.