Mark Reviews Movies

PAUL (2011)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Greg Mottola

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, John Carroll Lynch, Blythe Danner, Sigourney Weaver, the voice of Seth Rogen

MPAA Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 3/18/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 17, 2011

The difference between comic homage and in-joke is subtle but tangible—one of those things that, to borrow a phrase, is hard to define but clear when one sees it. I suppose the best way to put it is that one is genuine affection for a genre and its trappings while the other is basic name-dropping. Paul, a road-trip comedy about an extraterrestrial, two nerds, and a metric boatload of supporting players, is most definitely in the latter category.

The distinction is easier to spot in this instance, primarily because the movie's two stars and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are best known for starring in (and, for Pegg, co-writing) two films that accomplished the former with such expert skill. We are not here to compare this movie in terms of those others, though (It would be tremendously unfair), but it is important to point out that Paul attempts to garner most of its humor from direct references to items of science-fiction popular culture without giving it a sympathetic backbone. In other words, it's a movie its two main characters would connect with only by their ability to point out all those allusions (and sticking around during the credits to see if that's really Steven Spielberg's voice).

Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, a comic book artist and writer from England who have come to San Diego for Comic-Con—that wet dream of fan-boys and marketers alike. Even they chuckle at the grown men in orc costumes who surround them along the way but are quite attentive to the gaggle of women in Princess Leia metallic bikinis (and Clive with one in an Ewok costume). After the show, they rent an RV and plot a course to visit the many, famous UFO hotspots throughout the American West, from Area 51 to Roswell.

Along the way, they encounter a little, green man from outer space, with a huge head and a cat's eyes, named Paul (voice of Seth Rogen) that looks suspiciously like the common sort of creature we'd expect a little, green man from outer space to look. He explains that, over the years, his kind has put out their image to play on the collective subconscious of human beings so that, if a person were ever to run into them, they wouldn't freak. Graeme and Clive don't necessarily do that, though Graeme accepts the whole thing a bit more than Clive, who's jealous of feeling the second fiddle to the alien's attention.

The plot revolves around the trio attempting to bring Paul to a rendezvous with his kind and to outrun a determined man in black from a secret government agency (Jason Bateman, whose character's name Zoil is only used for a very, very late joke) and a pair of rookie feds, an equally determined but far more incompetent agent (Bill Hader) and yet another nerd (Joe Lo Truglio), assigned to the same pursuit.

Once the movie abandons the comfortably safe confines of lovingly mocking geeks and fish-out-of-water situations (Everyone thinks Graeme and Clive are gay, although a pair of rednecks at a diner just hate them for their existence), Frost and Pegg's script starts to falter on sources of jokes. From that drought arises the continual callbacks to genre standards, especially E.T. (Paul's candy of choice, the ship that arrives in the third act) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a firework called the "Five Tones," the location of where the ship arrives in the third act), leading to the Spielberg vocal cameo, which is set in an Army warehouse that looks a lot like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (It's no wonder he agreed to it).

The performances tonally disparate, with the agents veering into Three Stooges territory without going for broke (Bateman's deadpan delivery is commendable) and Pegg and Frost taking the backseat even to the laid-back Paul, and the closest any of the types come to a full comic character is Kristen Wiig as Ruth, a Bible-belt, fundamentalist Christian whose encounter with Paul brings on a hedonistic transformation. Her new libertine outlook on life is still hindered by her background, so when she tries to swear, it typically comes out as the words an amused 8-year-old would think were naughty. Then, of course, that's even slightly undermined by the inclusion of her father (John Carroll Lynch) as yet another of the growing collection of folks on the hunt.

The chase grows tiring and, later, excessive in Paul. This is a movie more in love with its ability to quote an assortment of science-fiction works than to actually find a comic niche of its own.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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