British comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”) team up with several SNL stars in the comedy “Paul.” There is a little something here for everyone, with a charming little green alien, silly adult humor and a legion of pop-culture references. The most successful accomplishment of “Paul” is its ability to use the sci-fi genre as a comedy without poking fun at the genre’s fans. Eventually the film reveals itself as more than just a sci-fi spoof — incorporating romance, intrigue and a road trip sense of adventure.
Lifelong friends and science fiction fans Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) cross the pond from London to attend Comic-Con and visit several alien hotspots in the southwest parts of the U.S. They get more than they bargain for when stumbling across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the lam. When alien Paul – cleverly named after the dog his ship lands on — crash lands in the Midwest, the U.S. Government keeps him under lock and key to learn what he knows about the universe and — more importantly — lends that information to Hollywood (We learn that Paul is the driving creative force behind Steven Spielberg’s career, and that Agent Mulder was also his idea). When Paul discovers the government’s plan to remove his brain, he makes his escape to return to his home planet. After encountering Paul during his escape, Graeme and Clive befriend the witty yet crude alien, and the three embark on a cross-country road trip in an effort to return Paul to the mother ship. Characters encountered along the way include Christian zealot Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig, “SNL”), angry redneck Gus (David Koechner, “Anchorman”) and U.S. Government Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman, “Hancock”).
The film follows a familiar successful formula by director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) with witty characters and one-line zingers embedded throughout the dialogue. The computer-generated Paul blends into the film seamlessly, unlike several of his predecessors (I’m looking at you Garfield and Jar Jar Binks). After a somewhat plodding exposition, the film picks up steam as a fun road trip romp with picturesque settings of the southwest and even delivers a few twists during the resolution. Pegg and Frost have superb on-screen chemistry and Jason Bateman shines as always as Agent Zoil.
The subtle pop-culture references are a lot of fun to unearth throughout the film. My favorites were a honky tonk country western band playing the Star Wars Cantina song and Steven Spielberg’s first feature length film “Duel” astutely located on a theater marquee. There are plenty more, but I won’t give them all away. Much like the character Paul, the film takes a while to grow on you. It is slow moving at first, with somewhat confusing character motivations, but eventually settles in as a traditional Mottlola comedy that is entertaining and good for several laughs. Oh, one more thing, don’t forget to bring your Reese’s Pieces — you’ll need them for the E.T. homages during the film!
Paul contains within it two movies, one of which is very good. The other is dominated by Seth Rogen.
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and his BFF Clive (Nick Frost), who insists upon introducing himself as “the writer Clive Gollings,” have traversed the Atlantic for the pilgrimage to San Diego’s Comic-Con, plenty of money for katanas in hand. Graeme declares it the most fun he’s ever had, literally, and that’s before the two head off on the UFO greatest-hits tour of the Southwest that crashes them into the path of Paul (Rogan). Like many space-dwellers, Paul isn’t a huge fan of the government, and thus hops into the pair’s RV to chart a path homeward.
As befitting any respectable road trip flick, the trio encounters a number of wacky characters en route, ranging from one-scene wonders (Jane Lynch’s truck stop waitress) to the fully-fledged love interest provided by the gawky Ruth (Kristen Wiig). It’s easy to see the sweetness that immediately endears her to Graeme, but several of the running gags she brings with her — a one-note crazed father and a knack for off-the-wall swearing — grow old fast.
Like Pegg and Frost’s previous big screen ventures “Shaun Of The Dead,” a slacker zombie flick extraordinaire, and “Hot Fuzz,” which takes the enthusiasm of Bad Boys and places it in a quaint village, the story is a love letter to its source material. Paul is a celebration of all things nerd, from obvious references (Paul asks for Reese’s Pieces when they arrive at a gas station), to the diet “X-Files” feel of Jason Bateman’s stoic FBI agent. And while it may be easy to enjoy the movie-lover allusions that pepper the film at a base “hey, I remember that!” level, Paul stays away from direct parody, to its credit.
Now, to the alien himself. Assumedly much of Paul’s humor is meant to derive from his looking like a prototypical extraterrestrial, while acting and speaking like, well, like Seth Rogan (whose mouth seems to have been creepily CGI’ed on). But the main issue isn’t the celebrity behind the character, it’s that this being, who we’re told possesses universal knowledge of everything, is a total blank. Paul provides quips galore, and a necessary (and temporary) wedge in the friendship between Clive and Graeme, but all in all, he’s the worst type of animated character — one who takes up no emotional space onscreen, never mind the pixels that make him show up.
What we’re left with, then, are lines that seem lifted from earlier, lesser drafts of Pineapple Express. Though he’s not physically present, Rogen’s essence permeates many parts of Paul, and while that’s not necessarily a flaw, it results in a disjointedness at times that holds the film back from the heights that “Hot Fuzz” was able to reach.
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