Summary Judgement: Well, it’s better than Run, Fatboy, Run but it’s a long way from Shawn of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogan, Jason Bateman and Kristen Wiig
Written by: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Directed by: Greg Mottola
What to say about Paul…it’s funny. Yes, that is a good start. There are moments when the movie feels like a nostalgia piece for the last twenty-five years of blockbuster science fiction cinema. Unfortunately, there are just as many instances where Paul seems to pander to a demographic that is so young that there’s no way they would get half the references coming their way. Although it achieved its mission of making me laugh, it’s unlikely that Paul is going to garner the kind of longevity or cult following attributed to other Pegg/Frost projects.
The plot of Paul is rather straight forward; a little grey alien named Paul (Seth Rogan’s voice) crosses paths with two British nerds on a UFO road trip. Tim and Mike Graeme and Clive (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) are, at first, reluctant to help the alien escape from a seemingly obsessed FBI Agent named Zoil (Jason Bateman). Inevitably, they decide to help Paul get to the rendezvous point with his mother ship. Along the way the trio picks up a bible-thumper named Ruth (Kristen Wiig). To cease her insufferable evangelizing, Paul exposes Ruth to the collective knowledge of his civilization, thus proving wrong all religion. Funny as it may be to watch Wiig’s character embrace hedonism and expressive swearing, no amount of fart jokes can cover up the fact that her character is window dressing for a movie that would otherwise be three heterosexual white men in a Winnebago.
While Jason Bateman and Seth Rogan ranged from fair to good in their performances, I have a problem with Simon Pegg’s and Nick Frost’s showing. In short, Pegg and Frost weren’t sufficiently British. Sure they had accents and “Aren’t we British” jokes – one of which was a not so subtle nod to Hot Fuzz – but beyond that, they were just boring North Americans. I’m not suggesting that they turn themselves into cliché burdened British caricatures who pull over the Winnebago for high tea and BBC Radio. However, when our heroes are asked if they’ve heard of Benny Hill and the answer is no, I find it hard to sustain my disbelief. Do you really expect me to believe that two middle aged British men have never heard of Benny Hill? I’ve spent time in the UK and there is always Benny Hill on some channel during the day. Perhaps it would have been too on the nose to make the British people even more alien in America than the actual alien. Or maybe there were revisions to the script a la Episodes wherein things that were “Too British” were amended for a general audience. Regardless, neither Pegg nor Frost seemed to put forward performances that are commensurate with their established abilities.
There’s also a fairly significant question of creativity within this movie. As protagonists, Graeme and Clive are two British super nerds, one of whom lives with his mother. At some point in the writing process, either Pegg or Frost must have turned to the other and said, “You know, we did this twelve years ago on Spaced.” Is there an assumption that North Americans haven’t seen Spaced so it’s okay to borrow the characters? Try as I might to treat this movie as its own thing, I can’t help but raise a sceptical eyebrow at what seems like creative laziness that puts Tim Bisley and Mike Watt on a road trip sans Daisy and Brian.
This problem of creativity becomes all the more acute as so many of Paul’s motifs are borrowed from other sources. When the movie gets referential, it is consistently cheeky, rather than clever. Sure, it is cool to hear the band at a cowboy bar playing the cantina theme from A New Hope but the gimmick ends there. With other references to Aliens, Star Trek, Star Wars and Close Encounters used on a similarly shallow level, I’m left to wonder what the movie is trying to do. As I giggle at Nick Frost cursing in Klingon, is the movie feting my aged geekdom or just pointing and laughing at the kooks, esoterics and “old” folk in the audience who catch each of the movie’s references? I honestly couldn’t tell. While I like to think that the movie isn’t a giant piss take at my expense, there’s such an abundance of cheekiness and so little material that approaches satire that it is hard to divine what is happening.
Despite its flaws, Paul did make me laugh; the one-off gags, physical comedy and toilet humour are well timed and smoothly delivered. Despite my chuckles during the initial screening, I strongly suspect that Paul wouldn’t make me laugh a second, third or fifteenth time in the fashion of Spaced, Hot Fuzz or Shawn of the Dead. For want of Edgar Wright as a director or Jessica Stevenson-Hynes as a writer, the magic just isn’t there. While I know comparing an actor/writer’s current work to their previous achievements is a little unfair, it seems necessary in this case. The similarities between Paul and some of the seminal work that launched Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as actors and writers are too frequent and too poignant to ignore. Paul is, at best, a slightly above average comedy with a very short half-life.
Overall Score: +1.5