SXSW FILM 2011
By Dave Wilson | March 18, 2011
Director: Greg Mottola
Writer(s): Nick Frost, Simon Pegg
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogan
Greg Mottola’s new comedy, Paul reunites Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, those inept, British working class heroes of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz for this perplexing send-up of sci-fi geek culture, fish out of water stories, and movies about feds chasing aliens. I don’t think there are very many examples of the latter genre to start with (E.T. and Starman come to mind), so the target is fairly narrow, and not as easy to hit as you might think.
Now I’m in the camp that considers Shaun of the Dead to be one of the funniest films of the last decade. I remember spending much of that film dying in my chair and trying not to have the kind of accident that Nick Frost has in the sand the moment that the bobble-headed alien, Paul, first emerges from the darkness talking like a baked frat boy. But sadly, I have to report that there were very few laughs in this film for me. Unfortunately, I spent much of Paul with a tight smile on my face, waiting for the big laugh that never comes. I really wanted this film to be funny. I even chuckled at a few things that were only sort of halfway funny, just to give the movie a little credit and get into the sprit of things.
So what happened? Why doesn’t Paul live up to its potential? Why is this little specimen so thin and shriveled and poorly clothed? I’d be remiss if I didn’t try and perform some kind of diagnosis, or even, dare I say, probe a little bit.
The first act opens with such promise. Clive (Nick Frost) and Graeme (Simon Pegg) are card-carrying sci-fi geeks and UFO conspiracy nuts. They’ve come to San Diego for Comic-Con where they meet their heroes, drool over comics, and spontaneously break out in Klingon every now and then. You get the feeling that they’re not even aware that they’re speaking Klingon, which I think is perfect. At least they’ve managed to translate some of their obsessions into legitimate work. When they’re not out and about making pilgrimages of this sort, Clive writes graphic novels and Graeme is an illustrator. Well, our two heroes are immediately dropped down into the proceedings as strangers in a strange land. Folks hear the accents, look at these two awkward men traveling together with their UFO bumper stickers, inexplicably sharing a room with a single queen bed—just a misunderstanding at the front desk, of course—and assume that they’re gay lovers.
Well, they do share a passion, but not that one. All of this, of course, is just a prelude to the real pilgrimage, an honest-to-God, American-style RV tour of famous sites in UFO history. Setting out in a camper called the Beagle Traveler, the boys drive off into the desert to hit infamous places like the Black Mailbox, Area 51 and the town of Roswell, New Mexico. Only wouldn’t you know it, along the way, they literally run into Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a real-life alien fugitive who careens off the road in a stolen car and seeks refuge in their RV. Clive and Graeme are absolutely gob smacked that extraterrestrial life can take the form of a mischievous three and a half foot alien in cargo shorts and flip flops who has a thing for marijuana and fart jokes. In fact, Clive is genuinely disappointed that his dreams have been realized so cheaply. But Paul, who comes across as a stoner with a pop culture fixation, needs Clive and Graeme to deliver him to safety. It turns out that he crash-landed in the sticks back in the forties and has been in government custody ever since, acting as a secret advisor. Now he’s on the loose and on the run from federal agents led by Jason Bateman.
What this means, unfortunately, is that the film abandons the looser, character-based humor and comic timing of the first act and devolves into something that is part road movie, and part run-of-the-mill chase movie. When mishandled, these are genres that can lose focus and impact by becoming overly dependent upon the nature of the characters, obstacles, or gags, in this case, that arise along the way. Paul himself is an amusing character, I’ll grant you that, and there is the promise of some sort of offbeat bromantic triangle when he first appears and threatens the stability of Graeme and Clive’s friendship and unique obsessions. But then they all hook up with Kristen Wiig as Ruth Buggs, a sheltered, one-eyed Creationist who needs to break out of her shell, and suddenly there are multitudes of tired gags about this woman learning to curse, or even fornicate for the first time. And of course, she has to be someone’s love interest, too, right?
Some of the sci-fi in jokes are so mishandled that my inner twelve-year old died a few times. At one point, Jason Bateman, the ruthless fed, ends a conversation by blasting his radio like Han Solo and muttering, “boring conversation anyway.” Well, this was completely lost on the audience when I saw the film, first of all. Secondly, what’s going on here? The line might make perfect sense coming from Clive or Graeme, devoted geeks, but why would the fed quote this line? Another revelation during the big Devil’s Tower finale entails a surprise guest appearance that results in little more than shrugs and mumbles.
I think Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have great chemistry and impeccable comic timing as actors. All of those early scenes where they just quibble and emote and get on each other’s nerves are truly funny. Seth Rogen, who provides Paul’s voice and stoner sensibility, has also made me laugh as the sheepish wiseass in films like Knocked Up. In fact, the entire cast assembled for this movie, which includes Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Jane Lynch, and Blythe Danner, is phenomenal. Everyone is on it, ready to walk on and do their shtick. Finally, director Greg Mottola is extremely talented and should be on a roll following his last film, Adventureland, which I really admired. This time, even with all of these elements in place, nothing ever gels.
In the end, the real fault is in the script (sadly, penned by actors, Pegg and Frost), which is wildly uneven, and unsure of whether to depend upon the foibles of its principal characters, Clive and Graeme, and their relationship with Paul, or just desperately string along random gags, off-color jokes about probing, and hit and miss references to old sci-fi films that die just as quickly as that poor bird that hits the windshield of the Beagle Traveler. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen that little bit with the dead bird in the film’s trailer, I won’t spoil it now. It’s one of the film’s truly brilliant comic moments. I’m smiling now as I think about it again. If only there were more of these moments—many more—along the way.