The new alien movie spoof, Paul, from the English writing-acting team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is less out-of-this-world than you might wish. The team that gave us the inspired zombie-com Shaun of the Dead and the action flick send-up Hot Fuzz is working in a different register here, more Judd Apatow-style scattershot than their usually precise comic homage.
It's not just the duo's transfer to an American setting from an English one that changes the tone. It's also the trade-in from English director, Edgar Wright, who kept things fast and saucy through those early films, for Greg Mottola ( Superbad, Adventureland), whose mode is more episodic, with lots of cameo space for the extensive supporting cast of Arrested Development and Saturday Night Live secondary comic characters. The results, it must be said, are less hi-larious than sporadically mid-to-low-larious.
The opening finds the two bantering Brits in San Diego, wide-eyed at the annual Comic-Con, where writer Clive Gollings (Frost) and his best friend and illustrator (Pegg) meet their supercilious idol (Jeffrey Tambor, checking in with cameo No. 1). They then leave the nerd fest in a rented recreational vehicle, determined to visit all the supposed UFO sites in the American Southwest.
After meeting a sassy Nevada waitress (Jane Lynch) at a diner, they manage to upset a couple of local goons, and head off in a hurry. Out on the road at night, near the military base known as Area 51, they witness a car crash and subsequently meet the titular hero, Paul. He's a child-sized classic bulbous-headed, big-eyed alien, who also happens to sound exactly like stoner-dude comedian Seth Rogen. For 60 years, he explains, he has been working as a consultant for the military and Hollywood, and has acquired the bad habits of drinking and smoking (both standard cigarettes and herbal). Now that the military probes are about to turn life-threatening, he wants to phone home.
Next complication is a girl. At a trailer park run by a gun-toting Bible-thumping wing nut (John Carroll Lynch), they pick up with his creationist-spouting daughter Ruth (Kristen Wiig), whose narrow perspective is captured in her one-lens sunglasses. When Ruth catches sight of Paul and assumes he's a demon, the trio has no choice but to kidnap her and convince her of the errors of her fundamentalist thinking (the most brashly British part of the movie). Soon she discovers the art of cursing and promises to move on to fornicating and other sins. Initially, this off-beat performance from Wiig is charming, though it gets a bit tiresome the 20th time she utters an unorthodox combination of naughty words.
As this is going on, a trio of men-in-black special agents are chasing the boys and the alien cargo. They're led by a no-nonsense chief (Jason Batemen), who's taking phone directions from a ruthless superior, instantly recognizable as Sigourney Weaver. His incompetent underlings ( SNL's Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), add slapstick and another layer of misunderstandings, with Blythe Danner popping up late in the film as a Spielbergian little-girl-who-grew-up.
Some of the later scenes capture the spirit of majestic sweetness of Close Encouners of the Third Kind and E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial period, but the elevated moments don't last. They're relentlessly undermined by the f-bombs, groin kicks, and anal-probing jokes.
As they proved with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Frost and Pegg know their movie genres, and Paul is packed with allusions to other science fiction films from the late seventies on - silly little things like a country band, honky-tonking through the music from the Star Wars bar scene. No doubt future fanboys will "partake," as Paul puts it, of their favourite time-travelling herb and find endless opportunities to play spot-the-reference. Think of it as one more excuse not to get a life.
- Directed by Greg Motolla
- Written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
- Starring: Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and the voice of Seth Rogen
- Classification: 14A