Double spaced – Paul review

Paul – Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Seth Rogen. Directed by Greg Mottola. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Paul is a fun tribute to sci-fi films (and film geekery in general), but did it have to be so … dumb? Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the writers and stars of this road-movie-cum-science-fiction-spoof, have proven time and time again how vast their knowledge of cinema history is. Their TV show Spaced and two feature collaborations Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are repeatedly pored over by like-minded movie buffs who appreciate all the references to pictures’ past. But much of that credit likely belongs to their prodigious director Edgar Wright, who seemingly burst free of the womb armed with a Super 8 camera, and VHS copies of Hard Boiled and Dawn of the Dead clutched tightly to his tiny baby chest. Wright neither co-wrote nor directed Paul. Instead, Frost stepped up to the plate to pen his first screenplay with the help of BFF Pegg. Judd Apatow-approved director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) was recruited to direct, and a whole fleet of talented actors and comics were similarly invited for the ride. Considering the pedigree of the talent involved, I expected a sophisticated satire with plenty of silly laughs. I expected one thing too many.

Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two comic book nerds/wannabe comic book authors with a proclivity for three breasted heroines (a nice Total Recall shout out). The English duo leave behind ol’ Blighty to attend the San Diego Comic Con (geek Mecca) and from there begin a road-trip across America to check out some extra-terrestrial landmarks (beginning at the Black Mailbox and culminating at Area 51). It only takes them a couple of days to happen across the most extra-terrestrial thing on Earth: a tiny green alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) who has escaped captivity and is intent on returning to his home planet. Graeme and Clive smuggle him onto their RV, and try to get him home, eventually aided by bible-bashing trailer park owner Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), and persistently hunted by FBI agents Zoil (Jason Bateman), Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio).

Movie lovers will no doubt enjoy all the references to Aliens, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars (and those are just the really obvious ones). Of course, the references themselves weren’t what made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz funny. Those films built real characters that had no idea they existed in the vacuum of a ninety-minute film and put them in scenarios with real stakes. All those fun little shout-outs and call-backs to Night of the Living Dead and Bad Boys 2 were icing on the cake. The characters in Paul exist merely for the duration of the film; they exist to travel from location A to location B, and be in situations where similarities to other films can be made along the way. They have the depth of characters found in a Saturday Night Live sketch (recurring characters, but still). Whereas the references in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz felt organic, and subsequently hilarious, audiences here are likelier to feel only self-satisfaction for noticing them.

Pegg and Frost are undeniably charming leads, but the real star is Rogen, who does manage to find the right balance between silly comedy and earnest characterisation in Paul. He is the kind of peculiar creation that I had hoped the film would provide more of. Although fans of Rogen’s oeuvre will no doubt be surprised that he is playing a charmingly foul-mouthed pothead, seeing his words come from the impressively animated green extra-terrestrial offers a refreshing twist on his signature sense of humour. Director Mottola also deserves some praise. Although he may not be as talented a visual stylist as Wright (who is?), his low-key approach is underrated. Consider his funk-flavoured take on the teen comedy genre in Superbad, and his home-movie evoking camera in the nostalgic dramedy Adventureland. Here he gives us his best Spielberg; wide-eyed and super-shiny. Whereas Wright knows how to use his camera to tell a joke – a truly rare talent – Mottola is able to make this mostly slapdash script still seem like a well-rounded movie.

The script. Pegg and Frost are such talented comics, actors and writers. But is this really the best they could come up with? The film is still funny (and occasionally, very funny). However, outside of the stream of non-stop movie references, this feels kind of lazy. There is an unpleasant reliance on ‘gay fear’ jokes (people keep assuming that because these two guys hang out together, they’re homosexual – the horror!), and Wiig, such a talented comedienne, is wasted by being expected only to spout a series of not-so-inventive cusses for no reason at all. Sometimes there is nothing better than a good dumb laugh. But when I need that, I’ll look to Adam Sandler, not the guys I had assumed were working on a higher plane. Although Paul is still enjoyable, it proves that the duo of Pegg and Frost are indeed fallible. This film should have shot them into the stratosphere; instead, it shows them crashing down to Earth.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Paul arrives in cinemas April 12, 2011.

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