(Greg Mottola, 2011, USA)
Something bothered me while watching Paul. It wasn’t that the film was a waste of a good opportunity (which it is), nor was it the strongly felt absence of Edgar Wright, it was realising the extent to which Brit stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have gone to to bend over backwards to impress and subsequently break into the American film market. Like Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand and countless others before them, Pegg and Frost have transcended their native homeland and subjugated to Hollywood to broaden their appeal and, of course, make more money, and like Gervais and Brand, the results are notably weak. Collaborating on screen for the first time without the masterful guidance of Edgar Wright, known for helming the misunderstood Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and directing the two stars on TV’s Spaced and the hit movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Frost star in, and also write, Paul, a science fiction comedy that, in their own words, is a love letter to the man himself, Steven Spielberg.
In a case of life imitating art, the two cast themselves as Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost), a couple of geeks who have flown from England to San Diego to visit the nerd-fest that is Comic-Con, an annual hub of delirious fanboys and obsessive enthusiasts, who gather every year to celebrate all things science fiction. Whilst in America, the duo decides to hire a winnebago and travel cross country to visit notorious extraterrestrial hotspots, including the infamous Area 51. However, whilst on the road, Graeme and Clive have a close encounter of their own when they come across Paul, a foul mouthed, marijuana smoking alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) who is on the run from a government that has concealed his existence for the past half a century. What starts as a road movie soon descends into chase, as Paul and co are targeted by government operatives hell-bent on locating and returning the extraterrestrial, dead or alive.
The best thing Paul has going for it is its extensive supporting cast, which reads like a who’s who of American comedy lynchpins; Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Blythe Danner and the incomparable Jane Lynch. It goes without saying that former sci-fi queen Sigourney Weaver is also roped into proceedings, playing the ‘Big Guy’ targeting the alien, but for reasons that are never made particularly clear. Despite the impressive cast list, their involvements, which range from minor cameos to major characters, reek of a desire for the filmmakers to the pack their film with as many stars as possible, masking the fact that their narrative is fairly predictable, flimsy and just an excuse to cram in as many references to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Aliens and even, somewhat bizarrely, the documentary Capturing the Friedmans as possible. The screenplay is occasionally inspired and obviously intent on paying loving homage to their movie heroes, but the more interesting ideas concerning the friction between science and faith are merely mentioned then pushed aside to accommodate more action and more characters smoking weed and saying rude words.
The film is directed by Greg Mottola, who used to direct episodes of Arrested Development before moving onto feature films such as the brilliantly juvenile Superbad and the fondly melancholic Adventureland, which was one of the best films 2009 had to offer. Paul is a considerable step down for the director, who exchanges poignant meditations on adolescent coming-of-age for potty mouthed, lowest common denominator type comedy, which never makes use of, nor bring anything new to its derivative premise. The only glimpses of wit derive from the scripts’s one liners yet they are underserved by a studio more concerned with profit and giving more bangs for your buck than genuine entertainment.
It’s with a strange sense of irony that the only animated character in Paul is its CGI’d protagonist, who has been created for a film that proves once again that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are nothing without Edgar Wright. Paul tries hard to please, but it never rises above anything more that its desperation to be liked.