Simon Pegg as Graeme Willy
Nick Frost as Clive Gollings
Seth Rogen as Paul (voice)
Kristen Wiig as Ruth Buggs
Jason Bateman as Agent Zoil
Sigourney Weaver as The Big Guy
Bill Hader as Haggard
Joe Lo Truglio as O’Reilly
John Carroll Lynch as Moses Buggs
Jeffrey Tambor as Adam Shadowchild
Nelson Ascencio as Jorge
Jane Lynch as Pat Stevens
David Koechner as Gus
Jesse Plemons as Jake
Directed by Greg Mottola
Best friends and sci-fi geeks Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) are on vacation in America to visit Area 51 and other alien hotspots. On the trip, they witness a car crash out of which comes an alien who calls himself “Paul” and they agree to take him to his destination, as they’re chased by federal agents who want their alien back.
Comic-Con in San Diego has grown by such leaps and bounds in recent years, it was only a matter of time before a movie was born from that experience. A number of pan-Atlantic comedy camps converged at the premiere of Greg Mottola’s “Superbad” back in 2007, and someday, that event may have been compared to the Sex Pistols’ pivotal gig in Manchester which resulted in dozens of influential bands like the Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths.
Instead, this unforgettable event resulted in “Paul,” a film that pays homage to its roots by opening at Comic-Con (or a very close facsimile) and then going so far out of its way to appeal to the geek shut-ins that escape their basements to attend every year, it disregards all the rules of good storytelling and comedy. Essentially, the results are better than Kevin Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and Kyle Newman’s “Fanboys,” but only slightly.
Not that “Paul” is awful or anything and it’s still better than at least 75% of the comedies produced in Hollywood, but it’s very much a comedy that tries too hard to appeal to American sensibilities by dumbing itself down one moment with crotch kicks, alien dance sequences, peed pants and the like, then trying to pretend it’s smarter than all that with Paul acting as a catalyst to get people thinking about their very belief systems. The results are something that’s neither one thing nor the other.
At least Kevin Smith’s “Red State” didn’t try to mince words or disguise its complete disdain for both church and state. “Paul” seems to be indecisive about how far to go, and it certainly doesn’t go far enough with its humor to warrant an R rating. Instead, it takes a far more low-brow approach to get laughs than you might expect from Pegg and Mottola’s previous movies while completely overdoing the “Star Wars” and Spielberg references to try to placate its potential geek audience. Sure, we get how much the movie is meant as an homage to “E.T.” and “Close Encounters,” but it gets to the point where the references are so ridiculous it starts to take you out of what might have been an otherwise enjoyable movie.
As a fan of both of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s previous films, as well as “Spaced,” it feels their characters in this one are just wishy-washy geek stereotypes who never really get you on their side, which allows them to be easily outshone by the CG alien. Technically, Paul is one of the best mocap CG characters that doesn’t involve Andy Serkis or Peter Jackson, and you can tell how much care was put into making him/it feel like a real character and not just Seth Rogen in an alien suit. That aspect of the film works implicitly, but not having Rogen on set acting out the part may be why the rest of the cast just doesn’t seem to be on their game.
More than anything, the film is about all the people the trio meets and how their lives are affected or vice versa. With three strong movies under his belt, Mottola has his choice of cast and he gets some doozies including Sigourney Weaver and Blythe Danner, the latter taking her character further than anyone else might have. Jason Bateman is so miscast as the heavy of the movie and he gives one of his most uninspired performances in a long time. On the other hand, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio steal the movie as the bumbling rookies, as they take better advantage of the opportunity than others. For instance, Kristen Wiig is a great choice for the ultra-religious love interest the boys pick up along the way, but she ultimately turns into a one-joke character after her mind is opened up by Paul and she tries to make up for lost time by cursing like a sailor. It’s funny for roughly two minutes. By comparison, Jeffrey Tambor’s Adam Shadowchild, the duo’s favorite sci-fi writer, seems like a character that could be more than a throwaway joke who shows up in a framing sequence, while Jane Lynch is so brilliant in her few scenes, you might wish her character replaced Wiig’s on the road trip.
The last act picks up as it turns into more of a straight-ahead madcap chase movie with action, explosions and CG effects, all of which Mottola handles quite ably, but frankly, we’ve seen this exact same thing before with “Race to Witch Mountain” and just the fact that movie can be used as reference gives you some idea why the movie ultimately fails.
The Bottom Line:
Decent fun at times but not nearly as clever or inspired as “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” or “Superbad” and having so much talent involved in making a comedy that’s not particularly funny is quite disappointing.
NOTE: For the sake of full disclosure, the author of this review appeared briefly as an extra in this movie. Look for him in the opening montage sitting to the left behind Nick Frost!