Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) are two man-child cybernerds from the U.K. on vacation in the good ole' U.S. of A to fulfill a lifelong dream of attending San Diego's Comic-Con to be followed by a tour of the mighty Southwest's greatest UFO hotspots. Pegg and Frost, lifelong friends and frequent collaborators, worked with director Edgar Wright on their last two films, the cult faves Shaun of the Dead
and Hot Fuzz.
This latest collaboration, Paul,
is directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland)
and finds the two Brit gents in a more amiable space - at least until a certain little alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) pops into their lives and turns their American holiday into an extraterrestrial adventure they will never forget.
may very well present an interesting dilemma for fans of Pegg and Frost, many of whom thrived on the edgy irreverence of Shaun of the Dead
and celebrated Hot Fuzz,
a gleeful and celebratory action genre parody. Paul
is edgy, but it's a more subdued edginess that constantly feels like it's on the edge of balls to the walls irreverence but never quite crosses the line. Similarly, Paul
is an affectionate and surprisingly sweet ode to all things Spielbergian in the sci-fi world, an affection that leads to more than one delightful and well-timed cameo. Yet, as much a tribute to 70's and 80's sci-fi as is Paul,
too often Pegg and Frost too often rely on that gimmick to sell the entire set-up and, more than once, obvious humor is set aside in favor of a laugh of familiarity at a line, a scene or a character from the past.
In all likelihood, the kinder and gentler nature of Paul
comes courtesy of Greg Mottola, who may lack Edgar Wright's inventiveness and irreverence but who makes up for it with an ability to tap into the heartstrings unlike anything Wright has been able to put on screen thus far. If you could weave together every film that Mottola has directed so far in his career and toss in an alien, the result would be Paul.
In short, while Paul
feels like a lesser script from Frost & Pegg, there's no problem at all with Mottola, who takes this film where it needs to go and, perhaps arguably, ends up with a vastly different beast than would have been created with Edgar Wright at the helm.
is part buddy flick, part road trip, part retro sci-fi and part good ole' fashioned chase flick. Things start off rather slowly with our boys partaking of the sensory feast known as Comic-Con, yet doing so in a way that feels soft and muted. It's as if Pegg and Frost knew that it was these fanboys (and girls) who have made them famous, and they go to great pains to poke ever so gentle fun at them. It's too gentle.
However, once Comic-Con is over the boys hit the road we get a delightful array of unusual characters, from an alien-friendly waitress (a well disguised Jane Lynch) to a bible-quoting campground queen named Ruth (Kristen Wiig, who gives what may be her most well-rounded and appealing performances yet) they meet shortly after a very earthly crash landing brings Paul into their lives.
Speaking of Paul. It's when Paul shows up that Paul
the film really takes off. As Mars Needs Moms
proved this past week, you have to sell an alien and an alien's story just right or nobody, as Disney found out, nobody shows up.
gets it right. Paul is a foul-mouthed, scrawny and goofy little bugger who has been held by the U.S. government for the past 60 years since a crash landing on our planet. During that time, he's shared his wealth of knowledge (Dare I say "universal?") with the government, world leaders and even filmmakers (Agent Mulder was his idea!). However, his well of knowledge is running dry and the government has just about figured out that the only way to get anything else out of him is to take his brain.
Oh, wait. That involves killing him. Yikes.
Paul, as he's known (and, yes, it is explained in the film!), escapes from an agent who is transporting him but has another agent on his trail (a deliciously deceptive Jason Bateman) and two underlings (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) under the watchful eye of "The Big Guy," whose identity I won't spoil here.
Paul is created as an absolutely delightful and wonderful alien, a sort of stoner E.T. who is unquestionably far more advanced than any human he encounters but who is, yes, also possessing of some hilariously humble human qualities.
After almost a decade of working together, it's not surprising that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost exhibit a laid back, easygoing comfort with one another. This has to be one of the few films where the inevitable gay stereotypes can't possibly be considered that offensive, because these two gents feel so comfortable together that the idea of coupledom isn't that far out of the ballpark.
For my taste, Paul
rests squarely between the sheer genius of Shaun of the Dead
and the more low-key yet still entertaining Hot Fuzz. Paul
will be infinitely more entertaining if you actually "get it," if you understand its cinematic and pop culture references and recognize its lines, scenes and characters. It's hard to imagine, actually, that fans of virtually anyone who is in this film will be disappointed as everyone is clearly on the same page as Pegg, Frost and director Greg Mottola. While Paul
never achieves comedic greatness, it is so funny and genuinely good-spirited the majority of the time that it's impossible to not enjoy time with these people.
It should go without saying that Pegg and Frost are once again a delight together, Frost being much more front and center than is usually true for these two. Kristen Wiig is absolutely perfect as Ruth, whose initial repulsion of the ironically more humanist Paul leads to a mind-melding encounter and a sort of shapeshifting consciousness for the blossoming young woman. Jason Bateman is cast perfectly, a rather stoic straight man amongst a sea of lunacy, while Blythe Danner shows up near the end and practically steals the show as the grown up woman who first discovered Paul's presence when she was a little girl.
is filled with a kaleidoscope of 70's and 80's tunes, and D.P. Lawrence Sher's camera work nicely captures the action sequences and the frequently larger than life facial expressions. Kudos, as well, to the entire special effects team for creating a vastly superior alien in 2-D than the folks over at Disney could muster up with Zemeckis's almost dead and buried stop-motion capture crap.
may never quite achieve the greatness for which it constantly seems on the verge, the film is without a doubt one of early 2011's most pleasant surprises and yet another genuinely entertaining, affectionate and heartwarming slice of American culture from the hearts and minds of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic