(Mike’s review re-posted as Paul is released in the U.K. today – Valentine’s Day!)
Just when you thought that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost had exhausted all of the bromance tales they could possibly milk from their relationship, they ruddy well pop up with another. The good news is that this time, they return to the level of geekery that best suits their strengths.
Paul is the story of Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost), two ordinary British nerds who have made their first pilgrimage over to Comic Con in San Diego. They aren’t just there to soak up the cape clad heroes and sci-fi stars they’ve idolised for so long, however, the pair have also planned a road trip taking in the most infamous alien contact sites in the US.
What they pair don’t bank on is the sudden appearance or archetypal alien Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who is fleeing from the government who have decided that he has fulfilled any possible uses since his crash in Roswell and that it is therefore high time that the USA gain the benefits a brain dissection would offer. So begins a madcap flight across the country to get Paul to a secure site from which he can be picked up by his intergalactic brethren.
Essentially the film is a road movie/sci-fi/love triangle crossover, and each element has its pros and cons.
The direction by Greg Mottola is tame and illustrates two things quite clearly: firstly, Pegg and Frost are pedestrian without the visual flair of Edgar Wright to provide the punch to their lines, secondly, Mottola’s work in Adventureland and Superbad have been vastly overrated. The two films were average at best, and the best parts were carried by some quality acting and clever scripting.
The bulk of the comedy comes in the road trip shenanigans of Graeme, Clive and Paul. The trailer reveals a few of the big laughs, but the pleasure of the film is more in the generally fertile atmosphere of dense sci-fi references. From the obvious music of the Mos Eisley cantina accompanying a bar brawl to cannier lines from various films creeping into the dialogue, there are a huge number of nods to the genre that fans will welcome.
The best and the worst, however, comes with the introduction of Bible belt babe Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), who the trio liberate from her devout and overbearing father in a trailer park somewhere in the deep south. What she brings in the comedy stakes is a risque series of attacks on Christianity that will be as unpopular among some sector of American audiences (Paul: “My existence doesn’t necessarily disprove religion: just all Judaeo-Christian denominations”) as it is popular among sci-fi fans and atheists (I challenge anyone not to laugh at the ‘Evolve this’ t-shirt). It also injects some edge and controversy into what could otherwise have been a by-the-numbers effort.
For her part, Wiig is excellent. She delivers the laughs with the kind of timing and energy that many better established comedy actresses would kill for, and does her best not to go overkill on the religious gags.
The only problem is that she almost overbalances the bromance side of the story. The bizarre menage-a-trois of Paul, Clive and Graeme made for a welcome fresh take on this well-trodden path, and the jealousy that made the two humans resent one another for ‘hogging the alien experience’ whilst simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically, resenting Paul for putting strain on their friendship produced some excellent scenes. But when Ruth is introduced the tension is diluted somewhat, flabby scenes are introduced to try and produce some more sexual (and non-sexual) energy into the proceedings, but all this serves to do is slow things down.
Nonetheless, the story finds its footing again in the final act: where a grand showdown not only amps up the geek-o-meter to full throttle but blasts a few surprises into the mix. The best being the introduction of Sigourney Weaver, who is on top form as the evil government official trying to prevent Paul’s escape. Her face-off with Jason Bateman, who has played a pursuing FBI agent to a tee throughout the film, pulls together the road movie/chase elements brilliantly, just as the referencing and general geekery hit fever pitch.
Thanks in no small part to this satisfying conclusion, Paul turns out to be a satisfying piece of entertainment that, though it never quite reaches the Pegg/Frost laugh levels of classics like Shaun of the Dead, has some character of its own to enjoy.
Paul is released in the U.K. on Valentine’s Day – February 14th but not until March 18th in the U.S.