Over the last decade, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have discovered one of the best formulas in comedy. If you put them, and their quintessential Brittishness, into a scenario from any number of overly serious popular American films, hilarity will probably ensue. Of course, this formula worked best in 2004’s cult classic Shaun Of The Dead, and their next film together, Hot Fuzz, while not quite as hilarious, has grown on me over time, but both of those films were directed by Edgar Wright, as was the British television series Spaced on which they all worked together for the first time. Pegg and Frost’s latest project together, Paul, is their first without Wright, who was busy with Scott Pilgrim. Instead they brought in Superbad and Adventureland’s Greg Mottola and moved the setting from the UK to America. Since the project was announced, I’ve wondered whether or not this radical change in their methods would stifle their humor and hurt the final product, particularly because Paul included an influx of American comedy actors who had not worked with the duo before. The truth is that while the film never comes particularly close to their best work, it’s still generally enjoyable and lesser Pegg and Frost will always be better than whatever other comedies are coming out of Hollywood.
Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, two British sci-fi nerds who have made a long-awaited pilgrimage to America for Comic-con and an extended road trip through all the famous alien hotspots in the southwest (Area 51, Roswell, etc). After a few interactions with some of the clearly disinterested natives (including cameos by Jane Lynch and David Koechner), they notice a car following their RV down the empty road. After a brief chase, the car flips over, and the occupant, an alien named Paul, voiced by Seth Rogan, walks out. Paul has escaped from the government, and he needs a ride. Graeme is more than willing to help out, and by this point Clive has passed out from shock, so Paul hops into the RV and the adventure begins. They are pursued by a group of quasi-competent government agents (Jason Batemen, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio). Eventually they accidently kidnap Ruth (Kristen Wiig), an attractive born-again Christian/love interest for Graeme, and her father (John Carroll Lynch) joins the chase. While Ruth is initially steadfast in her beliefs, her interactions with Paul and the knowledge he imparts on her (through a Star Trek-style mind-meld), quickly lead her to lose faith and embrace sin, which she’s never done before. It goes without saying that Pegg and Frost don’t consider American evangelicalism important enough to waste more than a few minutes of film satirizing it in the broadest sense possible. Eventually, the chase culminates in a location that will be very familiar to any sci-fi fan, but not without plenty of shenanigans and sci-fi references along the way.
To begin, it must be made clear that Paul is no Shaun Of The Dead. That’s not to say it’s a bad film, but it is something of a disappointment in light of Pegg and Frost’s best work. It would be easy to blame the film’s weakness on Mottola or even on the change of setting (their previous two films are possibly the best satires of the stereotypical dullness of British society since The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy was first published, and leaving England behind may not have been the best idea), but in truth, I think it’s a script issue. A lot of Paul’s (the character) humor is a bit broad, mostly because simple sex and weed jokes aren’t any funnier if they’re coming out of an alien. All of the cultural references are as funny as ever, but the film lacks the character moments that made Shaun and Hot Fuzz so great. In the desire to create a complex plot with more major characters than their other work, Pegg and Frost just weren’t able to write in enough humor for themselves. I think they work best as a duo, and introducing Paul and Ruth into the equation deprives the audience of their brilliant chemistry. Thankfully, we’ll get another shot to see them together this year because Steven Spielberg (who cameos here) cast them in his upcoming Tintin adaptation. I also wonder if they may have been trying to make a statement about immigration in this film, which is about two guys in the southwest hiding an alien from the government. On the other hand, it could have just been an extended ET reference, but I do wonder what could have been if they had gone further down that path.
Now, that being said, taken out of the context of their previous work, Paul is still a pretty enjoyable movie. Pegg and Frost toss in a seemingly endless array of delightfully nerdy pop-culture references, ranging from the subtle (at one point, our characters walk into a dive bar where the band just happen to be playing the music from the Mos Eisley Cantina in the original Star Wars) to the, well, less subtle (yelling lines from Alien/Aliens at Sigourney Weaver, who plays the main villain). Further references cover everything from X-Files to Close Encounters. Mottola’s films may have some pacing issues, but if Adventureland and Paul prove anything, it’s that he at least knows how to make a reasonably good-looking comedy, an art that has been lost in recent years. The desert settings and silly, over-the-top action give the director a lot of room to work with, and he succeeds as much as one could expect out of someone who unfortunately is not and never will be Edgar Wright. Whatever screen time Pegg and Frost lose, the rest of the cast gains and uses to their collective advantage. Rogen was probably the best choice to voice Paul, and his timing fits very well into the leads’ banter. Bateman is at his best when he’s playing an uptight jerk, and he steps perfectly into his role as the lead agent in charge of finding Paul. In truth, and this surprised even me, the funniest characters in the film are those played by Wiig, Hader (both of SNL fame) and Truglio (every David Wain project ever). While Hader has been consistently amusing in all of his recent film work, I’ve never been particularly fond of Wiig and I had no idea Truglio was even in the film. I never thought supporting characters would be able to outshine the dynamic duo of Pegg and Frost, but if the jokes work, I can’t complain about who tells them. In the end, mild disappointment aside, I did really enjoy Paul as a comedy, and I don’t know if I can ask any more of its creators.
Paul is rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use.
It opens in wide release on March 18th, 2011
Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Chris Dickens; original music by David Arnold; art director, Richard Fojo; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Nira Park; distributed by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
With: Simon Pegg (Graeme Willy), Nick Frost (Clive Gollings), Seth Rogen (the voice of Paul), Jason Bateman (Agent Lorenzo Zoil), Kristen Wiig (Ruth Buggs), Bill Hader (Agent Haggard), Joe Lo Truglio (Agent O’Reilly), John Carroll Lynch (Moses Buggs) and Sigourney Weaver (“The Big Guy”).