A film review by Craig J. Koban March 22, 2011

PAUL jj

2011, R, 104 mins.

 

Graeme Willy: Simon Pegg / Clive: Nick Frost / Paul: Seth Rogen / Ruth: Kristen Wiig / Moses: John Carroll Lynch / Agent Zoil: Jason Bateman / Adam: Jeffrey Tambor / Pat: Jane Lynch

 

Directed by Greg Mottola / Written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

To take a page out of the geek vernacular...by Grabthar’s hammer and by the sons of Worvan...I really, really wanted to like PAUL.  

For starters, this sci-fi/bromance road comedy is directed by Greg Mottola, who made SUPERBAD and ADVENTURELAND, the latter being a terribly underrated coming-of-age dramedy.  PAUL also stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, a pair of devilishly hysterical Brits that starred in two of the funniest comedies of recent years in the zombie/comedy homage SHAUN OF THE DEAD and their ode to 80’s action film mayhem, HOT FUZZ.  PAUL was co-written by Pegg, who co-wrote the two aforementioned films as well.  And, most significantly, PAUL is every sci-fi/fantasy/comic book geek lover’s dream film for the way it offers up oodles of Easter Egg references to classic and cherished examples of the genres.  Everything is here to make for a memorable screen comedy.   

Yet - sigh - here’s the problem with PAUL: For as sublimely goofy and frequently charming as it is, the film is only inconsistently amusing at best, which is not a very good sign considering the talent on board.  With the clever and capricious creative minds behind SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ you’d expect something more than a considerable amount of lazily telegraphed puerile gags (involving groin kicks, easy-target jokes involving gays, trailer trash, and religious fundamentalists), a relentless amount phoned-in profanity, and references to the subculture of sci-fi and comics that, to be fair, is not that much more creatively used as was on display in FANBOYS.  I guess what’s ultimately distracting is that PAUL almost puts the jovial camaraderie and comic chemistry between Pegg and Frost on the outside: they essentially play second fiddle to a CGI creature, which reduces them to mugging reaction shots more than allowing themselves to truly harness their comic sensibilities to their fullest. 

Pegg and Frost are still likeable, though, on screen together, even if they are fundamentally playing versions of characters that we've seen them play before: discomfited, socially inept, shy, defensively proud of their geekdom, and terribly awkward with members of the opposite sex.  The pair portray Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Rollings (Frost) a sci-fi writer and illustrator respectively that have recently created a book that features and much beloved three-breasted green alien creature on its cover.  These two Brits have just landed in the U.S. for a vacation where they aim to do two things: (1) visit the San Diego comic con, the Holy Grail meeting place of hard core nerds and (2) take their rented RV on a meticulously planned road tour of some of the most infamous UFO landing sites in the history of the Southwest.   

Very early on in their journey they have a very chance encounter with someone that is definitely not of this Earth.  They meet Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen, with a reliably droll aplomb) a pint sized green alien that looks, more or less, just like the Roswell alien images that we have all glanced at during one time or another.  Paul is not an ordinary E.T.: aside from having the power of invisibility (only while holding his breath), the ability to heal, telekinetically making people perceive his history while touching them, and a very disturbing penchant for eating birds while still alive, Paul is an alarmingly acclimatized outer space visitor.  He loves pot and cigarette smoking, wears cargo shorts and flip flops, and has a startling grasp of the English language and an even greater command of colorful usages of the f-bomb.  He truly hates anal probing, especially when people ask him if that’s what his kind does (“Why does everyone ask that?  Am I harvesting farts?  How much can I learn from a human ass,” the alien lashes out at one point).   

Of course, Graeme and Clive are completely weirded out by their new friend (Clive soils himself and passes out upon his first glance), but they soon become a tight threesome when Paul decides to hitch a ride with Graeme and Clive in order to go to the rendezvous point where his people will pick him up.  Unfortunately for Paul, a series of government agents are hot on his trail (led by the likes of Jason Batmen, who can dryly deadpan without so much as hinting at a smile with the best of them).  Along the way, and while eluding capture, Paul and his new human friends pick up a Christian zealot named Ruth (Kristin Wiig), who at first thinks Paul is a demon and then comes to the realization that perhaps Intelligent Design was not a part of his conception.  To make matters more complicated, Ruth’s deliriously hostile and shotgun trigger happy father (John Carroll Lynch) stops at nothing to retrieve his daughter and bring her back to a simple life of loving Jesus. 

There is material to enjoy in PAUL: I liked the revelation that the alien – who has been on Earth for over 60-years – has been behind some of the most significant and popular sci-fi and alien themed TV shows and films of the last three decades (the film’s funniest moment involves Paul on a conference call with a very famous young director in the early 1980’s discussing alien character design ideas).  Seth Rogen – in voice form only - makes his Paul a nifty and gregarious creation, even though he’s essentially the obligatory Seth Rogen character in another guise.  Pegg and Frost, as stated, are hard to dislike when they are on screen together, and they are able to easily stay in step with the film’s inherent silliness.  Jason Batmen, in my mind, is perhaps the most thanklessly funny performer in the film as his stop-at-nothing Federal lawman.  Just watch how he manages to smoothly spew out one-liner putdowns to his two lackeys (played by Mottola regulars Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) while never breaking his Agent Mulder-like, stone-cold composure and cool. 

Yet, the sum of a few of the film’s chuckle-inducing moments does not make a uniformly sidesplitting whole.  The comic energy, pacing, and tone of the PAUL seems all over the map at times.  Some of the pratfalls and gags seem too broad and pedestrian, like multiple inferences to Graeme and Clive being gay, which is precipitated by a hotel busboy seeing them in the same room with bath robes (really?).  Then there is the way Pegg and Frost’s script takes some terribly easy pot shots at fish-in-a-barrel targets.  Wiig’s Ruth is shown as a near frothing-at-the-mouth die-hard God lover and her father (named Moses, eh…get it?) is shown as an even more demented fundamentalist.   When Paul finally convinces her of the illogic of a Christian God being instrumental in his creation, Ruth throws her faith down the toilet and becomes a sex craving and unendingly potty mouthed sinner-in-training. 

Okay, I am no prude when it comes to foul language, but the vulgarity in the film (often coming from Wiig’s character) seems forced and ill fit for this material.  It certainly felt natural for the teen characters in Mottola’s SUPERBAD, where they used colorful metaphors as punctuation to the humor and to deal with their own adolescent insecurities.  However, in PAUL the litany of crude language is used for the soul purpose of getting cheap laughs.  Listening to Wiig’s lash out an unrelated string of naughty words gets tired and hackneyed really fast.  Pegg and Frost certainly know better than to use elementary usage of gutter talk as a default manner of getting chuckles, not to mention that their English mannered jabs at Yankee Bible thumping wackjobs and in-bred hillbilly trash feels desperate and languid at best.   

Yes, the film’s celebration of the main characters’ geekdom is, how shall I say it, cute, and the film enjoys referencing works as far ranging as STAR TREK, STAR WARS, THE X-FILES, and ALIENS.  Unfortunately, the winks and nods here seem more perfunctory than inspired, not to mention that the appearance of one famous ALIEN alumni – shown in a would-be surprising reveal at the film’s conclusion - is perhaps PAUL’s least best-kept secret cameo.  Perhaps the one element that’s sorely missing here is Edgar Wright, who has frequently teamed with Pegg and Frost in the past; he has always given his films a sense of breathless and energetic style, which could have been harnessed to great effect in PAUL.  Greg Mottola is capable, but he seems out of his element and unsure of what to do here, not to mention that the entire enterprise, at best, is just a daft, goofy, but disappointingly and erratically conceived sci-fi spoof that lacks the dry and vigilantly calculated British drollness that I was expecting.

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