Following the breakout success of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, British comedy legends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have teamed up once again to storm onto cinema screens for a third time, this time embracing Hollywood’s current obsession with all things extraterrestrial, their new film, Paul, being just one of many alien themed films being released this year. Not only that but, with them heading stateside –
this being the latest in what is becoming to be a trend of British-American co-productions, the new series of Torchwood being another example of such collaboration between the two culturally contrasting nations – for their latest film, they’ve assembled a who’s who of both rising and established American comedy talents to fill up the supporting cast and, with Pegg and Frost having written the screenplay themselves, they have made a film that is targeted at the inner geek in every one of us. So far, so what’s not to love, but, alas, there is a fly in the ointment. You see, while Pegg and Frost are returning from their two previous hits, there is one person missing from the equation this time – Edgar Wright. Wright, who directed both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz as well as co-writing both with Pegg, has himself headed stateside, where he made last year’s brilliant Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, something that is good news for American cinema but less so for everyone here in the UK where he is no longer available to work on films due to his commitments on American film projects. Stepping into Wright’s extremely hard to fill shoes is Greg Mottola, the director of vulgar American comedies Superbad and Adventureland. As someone who hated both of those films, Mottola’s presence at the helm of ‘Paul’ is not very welcome but you can’t always judge a person’s fitness to direct a particular film based on their previous directorial efforts and thus I went into this film prepared to give him the benefit of a doubt. So, as the first film to star both Simon Pegg and Nick Frost but have no involvement from Edgar Wright, how does Paul fare?
Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) are two best pals who are fulfilling their long held dream of travelling to America to make the ultimate pilgrimage – to the world's premiere sci-fi convention, San Diego Comic Con, and then onto a road trip across America visiting all of the country’s most famous UFO hotspots. While casually driving through America's famed Area 51 in their rented RV, a freak accident leads to an encounter with Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) – a visiting extra-terrestrial who is AWOL from the secret military base, after having been held there as a ‘guest’ since 1947 when his spaceship crashed – not in Roswell, New Mexico as the government would have us believe but rather in Wyoming – and having recently discovered that now he has told the authorities everything he knows, they are planning to remove his brain for further study. In the spirit of all things alien, Paul is desperate to go home and begs Graeme and Clive to help him get there. With Federal Agents – including the dogged Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil (Jason Bateman) and the incompetent duo Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio) – working for “the big man” (Sigourney Weaver) hot on their trail and the inadvertently kidnapped Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a creationist who finds her whole belief system challenged by Paul’s very existence and whose father Moses (John Carroll Lynch) is also soon on their tail, by their side, will our two accidental heroes manage to get Paul to the spaceship that has been sent to rescue him. And can they do so without getting themselves shot in the process?
The best way of describing Paul is that it is a sort of more adult version of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. And in terms of the central story there really isn’t a whole lot to distinguish the two films. Aside from a genuinely surprising plot twist towards the end that you definitely won’t see coming, the story is one that offers few surprises, being rather generic and predictable for the most part – essentially if you’ve seen E.T. you will know pretty much where the story is headed. Of course, beyond the core plot, there are few similarities between the two films, the humour here setting this way apart from the film from which it so clearly draws inspiration. A fair amount of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s recognisable brand of humour is present here, their screenplay – for which they went on their own road trip across America to get inspiration – featuring some smart touches such as the idea that the government has been drip-feeding Paul’s image into mainstream culture so as to prepare the human race in the event that they ever encounter aliens first hand, hence the fact that Paul looks just like so many descriptions of aliens from real encounters over the years and exactly like so many features in films and TV shows. The idea that Paul has had such a big influence on popular culture allows for many references to films and TV shows including The X-Files, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and, of course, E.T.. With lots of sci-fi movies and TV shows referenced in gags and lines of dialogue that are aimed directly at the funny bones of geeks everywhere – there are even lines of dialogue in Klingon – this is a film that undoubtedly offers many funny moments for its target audience. Additionally, scenes set at the world’s biggest and most famous comic convention San Diego Comic Con – although not filmed there, all the scenes being filmed at a virtually flawless recreation of the event staged at the Albuquerque Convention Centre in New Mexico with extras playing the costumed fanboys and geeks – perfectly highlight the film’s serious geek credentials and a reference to smaller but similar British event, Collectormania London, also bring the characters home to us. What’s more, the fact that they travel to famous UFO hotspots that really do exist in real life makes for something that will appeal heavily to UFO fanatics everywhere. Back to the humour and if you are not in the target audience you may not get quite as much out of the film. Some jokes are rather obscure, so much so that very few might actually get them and while there is some witty humour and dialogue there isn’t really enough of it. With Paul being a very crude, rude and lewd little alien, the humour frequently heads towards gross out, although staying on the side of suggestion rather than explicitness, and there is a significant amount of crudely suggestive humour that some will really appreciate but me less so. As a whole, the comedy here is a bit of a mixed bag, the distinctly British and geek targeted comedy stylings of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost really not going well with the more crude and lewd style of Greg Mottola and the resulting clash making for a film that does provide laughs but never achieves the laugh out loud factor that was achieved by Pegg and Frost’s other films.
It’s certainly not the fault of the performances here that the film fails to achieve the really big laughs though, even though the absence of stronger material does mean that few cast members are truly great here. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are on good form as the protagonists and make for perfectly convincing geeks. Seth Rogen, who apparently actually played Paul (rather than just voicing him) using the same motion capture technology that Andy Serkis used to play Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, fares reasonably as Paul even though he is less than stellar in the role. Kristen Wiig fares decently as Ruth but doesn’t get many laugh out loud moments. More or less playing the straight man, Jason Bateman delivers a very dry performance, something that is quite appropriate for the character he is playing. This is contrasted by more outright silly performances by Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio. For most of the film Sigourney Weaver is only heard not seen, her character largely just being a disembodied voice speaking over a telephone and the actress only appearing in person near the end but when she does appear in person she is a welcome presence. As for everyone else, Blythe Danner plays against type as a woman who Paul encountered back in 1947 when his ship crashed, Jeffrey Tambor turns in an excellent cameo appearance as belligerent sci-fi author Adam Shadowchild, Jane Lynch (best known as Glee’s Sue Sylvester) makes an appearance as a waitress at UFO themed diner Little Little A'Le'Inn – which really does exist in real life – and there is a vocal cameo by none other than Steven Spielberg. Unfortunately, the efforts of the cast really highlight the fact this film is just decent rather than great, something that is present in other aspects of the film as well with the visual effects on Paul and the spaceship that appears at the end being decent but not great and the same being true of the action sequences and, while there are a few instances of quite beautiful cinematography, largely there isn’t much to really speak of in this regard. The truth is that Edgar Wright was an essential part of the dynamic that made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz work and, without him to complete the ensemble, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost just aren’t as good, this being far from their best film, and something that they may have made good but that Wright would have made great. Greg Mottola is no Edgar Wright, that’s for sure, and with the film lacking Wright’s magic touch, there is also a sense that it is perhaps a bit too American, lacking the British charms that made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz so memorable. So, while Paul offers plenty of funny moments, it lacks the sharp touch of either of those films, being entertaining but with it being hard not to feel that it could have been so much better. During an interview and in a somewhat obscure comparison, director Mottola stated “I don’t have any illusions that we’ve made the next Battleship Potemkin”. He was right on the money with this statement – who ever expected this film to be the next Battleship Potemkin (a film which is in no way similar to this one anyway? Sadly, however, he hasn’t made the next Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz either.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)