WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: English comic/sci-fi geeks Graeme and Clive pick up the strangest hitcher during their pan-American trip of notorious alien sites: an alien! Although ‘Paul’ turns out to be one of the more normal American residents they encounter, he’s a fugitive, and the lads are chased across the country by the authorities and more besides. To Graeme’s, if not Clive’s, delight, they also pick up a (human) female traveller on the way.
Budding sci-fi writer Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) and his illustrator mate Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) find themselves in geek heaven at San Diego’s Comic-Con. Their close friendship mistakenly leads some to believe they are gay, but this doesn’t deter them from putting their long-dreamt of plan into action. The duo rent an RV and head off across America to see the great UFO hotspots along the Extra-Terrestrial highway, upsetting locals Gus and Jake (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons) along the way. Their alien hunt is rewarded when a car crashes in front of them and they discover the driver is ’Paul’ (voiced by Seth Rogen), a small green fellow with dry humour and a keen cigarette habit. Clive is unbelievably freaked out by Paul, while Graeme manages to hold himself together long enough to discover his story: Paul has escaped from a government facility and is heading north as quickly as possible, while black-suited Agents Haggard and O’Reilly (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), and Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), under the angry radio orders of the ‘Big Guy’, follow in disorderly pursuit. Stopping off at a trailer park, the guys inadvertently pick up visually disabled Christian Ruth (Kristen Wiig) and, after blowing her belief system to smithereens by introducing her to Paul, are forced to take her semi-hostage. As Paul is chased all the way towards his destination, the Englishmen pick up Paul’s first contact; the alien also runs into a considerably less friendly acquaintance.
The store of goodwill Pegg and Frost built up during the run of terrific slacker sitcom Spaced and enhanced with zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead – a film parodying zombie movies – may have been ever so slightly leant on in Hot Fuzz, a film parodying buddy cop movies. In both films, the boys do their lovingly straight best buds routine, and it works despite becoming a smidgen over-familiar. The crucial difference between these examples and Paul – a film parodying alien encounter movies – is that the duo’s earlier work at least hints at characterisation. In Shaun, Frost’s Ed is a militant slob; in Fuzz, Pegg’s Angel is a jobsworth workaholic. Paul, on the other hand, features Pegg and Frost as more or less themselves, with nothing to make them either sympathetic or unsympathetic except their inherent nerdiness.
Which wouldn’t be so bad, except their blandness also extends to the rest of the cast (for whom, as writers, Simon and Nick are accountable): Ruth is an absolute caricature, a pretty woman who goes from unconvincing ‘Blasphemy!‘-spouting God-botherer* to unconvincing atheist and hedonist quicker than you can say ‘I do like the symbolism when she’s cured of being one-eyed’; the love story is as clichéd as hell, too, plinky guitar music beating us over the head to counterpoint Graeme’s unfamiliar stirrings. Blythe Danner does the best she can with a something-and-nothing part, Jeffrey Tambor and Jane Lynch pop up and deliver lessons in comic acting, and there’s a fun but extremely truncated mystery cameo – though it‘s not such a big mystery after all.
As for Paul himself? Well, he’s actually quite cool. He’s animated brilliantly and totally inhabits the picture, and he’s easily the most rounded character in the film. Rogen invests him with a laid-back air, and although it’s all-too obvious how his special powers are going to come in useful, he’s quite a charming presence. What he isn’t, however, is hysterically funny; his wisecracks seldom rise above ALF-level (bottom-probing isn‘t that funny), and while the homages to other movies raise smiles of recognition, they do little more (in particular, the scene where Paul is disguised to walk amongst the public pales besides E.T.’s similar Hallowe’en hi-jinks).
You may well be asking where the laughs come from in a movie where the characters, parodies and story struggle to deliver. Pegg, Frost and Superbad director Mottola’s answer is twofold: firstly, swearing. Swearing can be hilarious in the right hands (In The Loop, for instance, or bits of Four Lions); but it’s simply not possible to replace inventive and well-crafted jokes with swear words and hope nobody will notice. It’s not just the fact that Ruth’s random ejaculations don’t sound authentic, or that the agents go around cursing for no good reason; Paul‘s constant crudity entirely misses the point of using swear words to shock. If you do it once or twice, it’ll probably work. If you swear all the ****ing time, after a while you become attuned to it, totally defeating the purpose.
The other ploy Paul tries is stupidity, which if anything is even less successful. Whether it’s the Three Stooges-like violence of Haggard and O’Reilly, or the dreadfully hackneyed portrayal of homophobic rednecks Gus and Jake, or the lazy use of John Carroll Lynch as Ruth’s bible-thumping, shotgun-happy father, the film is content to break up Paul’s philosophical moments with low comedy. And you thought barroom brawls went out with the likes of The Cannonball Run…
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Although Paul isn’t as clever, or funny, or characteristically Pegg/Frost as you might want it to be, it’s far from unwatchable; and though it could be much better written, it’s not nasty or sexist and the production values are out of this world. The film isn‘t, though, and it‘s irresistibly tempting to cite Edgar Wright’s absence as the reason why. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World might have benefited from a little input from Simon and Nick, and I’ve no doubt Paul would have been a better, tighter movie under Wright’s guidance. As it turns out, Pegg and Frost without him are not terribly good at writing Pegg and Frost.
NOTES: Personally, I’m not the least bit concerned about Paul’s pro-atheist slant. God can look after himself, so I’ve no idea why anyone of faith would feel offended by a comedy film. However, I do argue with the reductive logic that the existence of aliens proves the non-existence of God.