Paul (Spain/France/U.K./United States, 2011)March 18, 2011
Paul is arguably the best science fiction comedy since Galaxy Quest. Despite being humorous in its outlook and providing numerous "Easter eggs" to fans of Star Wars, Aliens, Close Encounters, and E.T. (amongst others), this isn't a parody. Outside the occasional, affectionate jabs at science fiction fans and comic con attendees, Paul avoids taking the satirical approach. Instead, it's a road trip and a buddy movie, albeit one in which a participant happens to be an alien.
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are visiting the United States from England with vacation destinations in mind that only a die-hard sci-fi geek could love: first - Comic con, second - a camper trip through the Southwest visiting all the "classic" UFO spots. They haven't proceeded far on their journey when they have a close encounter of a weird kind. A profane alien who calls himself "Paul" (and whose voice is provided by Seth Rogan) introduces himself. Graeme is psyched but Clive passes out. Paul is on the run from U.S. government agents (led by Jason Bateman), and thinks the best way to get home is to join up with Graeme and Clive. The trio becomes a foursome when they kidnap Ruth (Kristin Wiig), a Christian zealot who thinks Paul is a demon. After she is enlightened via a mind-meld with the alien, she represents a viable love interest for Graeme. Their future happiness is threatened not only by the Men in Black on their trail but also by Ruth's gun-toting father (John Carroll Lynch), who wants his daughter back.
There is little question that Pegg and Frost, who wrote the screenplay, are more than closet science fiction fans. Lines from Star Wars and Aliens show up in the script (with the Aliens one brilliantly incorporated). References to other science fiction staples abound, with The X-Files, Star Trek, and E.T. warranting mention and a very big nod being given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, Steven Spielberg was so tickled by the story that he leant his vocal talents to a scene. (That is actually Spielberg's voice, not an impersonator's.) It's a little surprising the Star Trek elements are on the light side, considering that Pegg is now playing Scotty.
Despite taking place in the United States and being directed by an American, the humor is very British, as is fitting for a Pegg/Frost screenplay. There are amusing sequences, but few will result in uncontrolled bursts of laughter. It's not that kind of movie. Paul wants its viewers to experience an enjoyable two hours and laugh from time-to-time, but the film's goal isn't to pummel the audience with joke after joke. It has a story to tell.
An argument can be made that Seth Rogan is overexposed, but he's a good choice for the voice of Paul. Heard, but not seen, he is effective. A digital creation inspired by the popular "Roswell alien" images (which were also the models for Spielberg's extraterrestrials in Close Encounters), Paul is realistically rendered and fits in so seamlessly that it's easy to forget he isn't flesh-and-blood. Pegg and Frost play the kind of characters they have become associated with: awkward, socially inept guys who are more intimidated by women than by aliens. SNL veterans Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader, who appeared in director Greg Mottola's previous venture, Adventureland, verge on going too far over the top for the tone established by the rest of the cast. Sigourney Weaver represents a casting coup, if only for two memorable moments.
Despite the science fiction trappings, the odd appearance of the alien, and a few ridiculous action sequences, Paul is really little more than an old fashioned mismatched buddy film, complete with a sentimental conclusion. The narrative incorporates elements of a road trip movie and a romantic comedy but, more than anything, it flourishes because of the unconventional relationship among Graeme, Clive, and Paul.
In the past, Pegg has done his best work when paired with Edgar Wright. Here, without Wright's participation but with the help of Frost and Mottola, he has crafted something every bit as good as either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. It's not as funny but it has more heart and replaces caricatures with something a little more three-dimensional. Lovers of pop science fiction (as opposed to the hard-core stuff) will derive more from Paul than generic movie goers, but it's a pleasant enough diversion for everyone. Even the profanity isn't that bad - just salty enough to earn the "R" rating - otherwise the movie is comprised of strictly PG-13 content. The special effects budget is on the high side but those effects serve the story rather than the other way around, and Paul is all the better for it.
Paul (Spain/France/U.K./United States, 2011)
Cast: Simon Pegg, David Koechner, John Carroll Lynch, Sigourney Weaver, Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader, Jason Bateman, Seth Rogan (voice), Nick Frost, Joe Lo Truglio
Screenplay: Nick Frost, Simon Pegg
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Music: David Arnold
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures