Paul – film review

The grey liberation movement

15 * 103 mins * 14 February 2011
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Director: Greg Mottola
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver

From a flat in Finsbury Park to a soundstage with Steven Spielberg, Britain’s beloved comedy couple Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have run an esoteric cinematic gauntlet, tackling the zombie apocalypse and a cult of machine-gun-toting OAPs during seven years on the big screen. The bromance remains largely the same, but for Paul the pair have gone interstellar, enlisting some significant star-wattage and adding a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, “well endowed” wayward ET to the mix for what’s arguably the best, and easily the funniest, sci-fi comedy of its kind since Galaxy Quest.

Conceived on the set of Shaun Of The Dead, Paul is Pegg and Frost’s first script as a duo, and their first film together without career-long-collaborator Edgar Wright. Echoes of Shaun are evident throughout – the fantastical set-up which rarely impedes sincere character-based storytelling, cyclical gags which improve with every recurrence and enough in-jokes to assure the average geek that Pegg and Frost haven’t sold their souls to Hollywood.

In fact, from the opening scenes, a Close Encounters-aping pre-title tease followed by a tour round a stall-for-stall recreation of San Diego Comic Con, the film veers dangerously close to alienating (no pun intended) all but its geek core audience. Unfortunately the more obvious concessions to a mainstream crowd (tired gay jokes, underwhelming car chases, an unconvincing central romance) are among Paul’s weakest links, though they’re never enough to derail the film’s laugh-a-minute ride.

As with all good comedies, the central conceit is pleasingly simple. Best buds Graeme Willy (Pegg) and “the writer Clive Gollings” (Frost) are on a geek pilgrimage across America, from Comic Con to infamous UFO landmarks such as the Black Mailbox and Area 51. Before their ramshackle RV reaches its final destination, however, Graeme and Clive pick up a hitchhiking extra-terrestrial (Rogen) looking for a ride home, and find themselves hunted by the feds, enraged rednecks and a fundamentalist Christian looking for his daughter (Wiig).

Clustered around this single-minded mayhem, however, are a bewildering array of ideas, themes and subplots, occasionally giving the impression that Pegg and Frost have tried to cram too much into one movie. Elements such as subliminal assimilation, anti-judeo-Christian rhetoric and Paul’s powers (he can turn invisible, and heal anything with a touch), for example, only feel important in rare instances. A fact which is less troublesome given their role in a script of such wit and invention, one which – though frequently crude (think Superbad rather than Shaun) – is never mean-spirited and always has its heart in the right place.

Across one seminal sitcom and two movies, Pegg and Frost have perfected their on-screen double act, and while Paul does throw in a few trifling twists (Frost is the more confident one now, but Pegg still gets the girl), it isn’t until the appearance of the titular grey that the film kicks into light speed. It may have failed to impress in the various trailers and previews, but any reservations about Seth Rogen’s space invader are quickly obliterated, because Paul works seamlessly in the film’s otherwise grounded reality. A triumph of visual effects, convincing characterisation and bad taste humour, Paul is everything a CG character should be: relatable and, well…  human. No small achievement, given that his other pair of pants is located in a different galaxy.

A wishlist of America’s comedic heavyweight form the supporting cast, and though their characters are somewhat under-developed, they never feel one-note, with each taking unexpected turns along the way. Wiig’s secular awakening in particular is a rich source of humour and nonsensical potty-mouthed profanity. But it’s genre icon Sigourney Weaver who threatens to steal the show, her late appearance the set-up for an unforgettable Aliens gag.

There are problems. By the end, the film devolves into a relentless series of in-jokes, so much so that dialogue frequently feels forced and crafted around references rather than the other way round. Some will have an issue with Greg Motolla’s direction, but this will only be a problem for those going in expecting Edgar Wright’s hyperactive editing style and striking visual trickery to punctuate the comedy. Mottola, rightly, never tries to imitate Wright, opting instead for a less showy, more traditional call-back to classic road movies – and, of course, early Spielberg.

It’s rare for a broadly mainstream movie (particularly a comedy) to embrace sci-fi culture so wholeheartedly without making it the butt of the joke – even Fanboys resorted to this tactic on occasion. But with anal probe jokes that would make ET blush, a CG character that justifies having his name on the poster and the best one-liner about a very loud clock you’ll ever hear, Paul is that rarest of specimens: a genuinely funny geek-friendly comedy.

Jordan Farley