Synopsis: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) reunite as sci-fi geeks taking a pilgrimage to America’s UFO heartland. There they meet a smart-ass alien, Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who takes them on an insane road trip. As they struggle to return Paul home, the little green man might just take the outcasts from misfits to intergalactic heroes.
From the director of Superbad, Greg Mottola, and with a stellar supporting cast including Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jane Lynch and Sigourney Weaver, Paul is a must-own comedy adventure not to be missed!
eyelights: its nerd factor. the capable cast. the solid script.
eyesores: the awkward exposition. the heavy-handed evolutionary message. the cgi.
Graeme: “Are you gonna probe us?”
Paul: “Why does everyone always assume that? What am I doing? Am I harvesting farts? How much can I learn from an ass?”
‘Paul’ is a science fiction road comedy written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, of ‘Spaced’, ‘Shaun of the Dead‘, ‘Hot Fuzz‘ and ‘The World’s End‘ fame. Unlike these other projects, however, ‘Paul’ is not directed by Edgar Wright: at its helm was the less stylistic Greg Mottola, of ‘Superbad‘ and ‘Adventureland‘ fame.
This unassumingly-titled motion picture is the story of two British geeks who have come to the United States to check out the San Diego Comic-Con and visit some landmark extraterrestrial sighting locales. Along the way, they meet an actual alien, the titular Paul (as voiced by the inimitable Seth Rogen), who would take them for the ride of their lives.
Made on a moderate budget, and released in 2011, ‘Paul’ grossed near a 100 million dollars worldwide.
Personally, I barely registered the picture when it was released, and dismissed it when I saw the DVD in stores everywhere. There was really nothing inspiring about it for me: certainly not its title nor its cover artwork. Pegg and Frost were moderately appealing, of course, but I had no idea of the quality of ‘Paul’ and really didn’t feel like taking a gamble on it.
That is, not until I could get the BD for dirt cheap. Of course.
I wish I had had more faith. What I’ve discovered over the years is that I really like Simon Pegg’s pen. Of all the things he’s written that I’ve seen, there’s not one that I’ve disliked. I’m not saying that I was bowled over by any of his work, but it’s always of very decent quality – I always enjoy it to the extent that I would effortlessly watch it again.
The same can be said for ‘Paul’. It’s a simple idea that’s well-executed and is engaging enough to get you through the picture without any sense of boredom at any point. Is it amazing? No, it isn’t. Is it novel? Not really. But it’s a rollicking good ride: over the course of well over 90 minutes, ‘Paul’ breezes from San Diego, CA to Devils Tower, WY (oops…spoiler).
As per usual, Pegg and Frost inserted tons of pop culture references (many of which I didn’t get, and many that I absolutely did), and they made their characters easily relatable, everyday types – for geeks. They also populated their picture with a bevy of intriguing characters that, collectively, make ‘Paul’ much more interesting than it has any right to be.
- First, there’s Paul. While he’s a CGI animation, Seth Rogen makes him feel three-dimensional – particularly because Paul is a smart alec, cursing, smoking, drinking dude like any other – except extra-terrestrial. He fell to earth decades ago and has been under observation by the United States government ever since. He thought he was merely a guest, but he just realized that he’s a subject, and that he’s at risk. Now all he wants to do is escape their clutches so that he can make it to his rendez-vous and go home. He enlists Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost), of course.
- Ruth Buggs helps her father run the family trailer park. A meek Christian fundamentalist who has been stricken blind in one eye and wears a patch, she meets the trio when they stop by for the night. Due to unforeseen circumstances, she will become aware of Paul’s existence and will be taken along for the journey. She struggles with her long-held beliefs and the knowledge that Paul imparts on her (both by his very presence and through a mind transfer), after which she lets loose. Kristin Wiig is amazing as Buggs, giving her a mixture of tenderness and awkward crudeness that’s endearing and hilarious at once.
Ruth is also an interesting character because she’s not just a wimpy love interest. She is that too, sure, but she’s the most vulgar of the bunch and she’s extremely keen to try new things, to broaden her horizons. The dope-smoking scene was interesting because Graeme and Clive didn’t partake at all (something I thought was strangely refreshing, given how movie heroes are these days) but Ruth wanted to try it so that she could be “with it”, but she became the butt end of the scene – something that is usually reserved for male characters. That was a nice touch.
- Special Agent Zoil, as incarnated by Jason Bateman. He’s after Paul, and will stop at nothing to catch up to him. I was rather impressed with him the first time I watched the movie, because I never expected him to play a tough-as-nails agent so well – in my mind, he’s still ‘Teen Wolf Too’. But, although he doesn’t have the physique, he had the demeanour and enough of the acting chops to pull it off. I was less impressed the second time around. He’s no Tommy Lee Jones (on whom he partially based his performance), but he does a credible job, and makes for a believable villain. Or minion, as the real villain is the mysterious “Big Guy”.
- Agent Haggard and Agent O’Reilly, played by Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio, respectively. These agents were on another case when they were rerouted to try to stop Graeme, Clive and Paul’s Winnebago. There’s both adult boys, and they tend to kill time doing dorky things like playing hide and seek, or stopping by comic book shops. They’re not silly, per se, but they do provide a few well-placed laughs – especially in contrast with Agent Zoil. Complicating matters slightly is the fact that Haggard inadvertently discovers the truth about their mission and, as a geek, becomes obsessed with finding Paul.
- Pat Stevens, the waitress at a roadside diner, on the way to Area 51. Jane Lynch is terrific in the role of this small-town, but sharp, waitress. She is as obsessed with UFO sighting and conspiracy theories as Graeme and Clive are, and her whole diner is built around these themes. Obviously they share a few moments. Lynch only has a small cameo, but she makes her mark.
- Tara Walton, the little girl who saved Paul’s life when he crashed to earth, and spent the rest of her days being mocked for her claims of having encountered an alien. She is now a recluse, living alone in her farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Seeing Paul again after all these years, she is all wide-eyed and elated to get a piece of her life back. Blythe Danner is fantastic in this part. I hadn’t seen her on screen in ages (and the last film I saw was ‘Futureworld‘ from 1976). Boy, she looks good for her age. Wow. And she doesn’t show any obvious signs of surgery, as they usually do in Hollyweird. Roooowr.
Even Jeffrey Tambor shows up as a condescending science-fiction author that Graeme and Clive meet at the Comic-Con; he’s hilariously testy. And there are a couple of nice surprise cameos in the form of “The Big Guy”, who was a really nice sight, and also when we discover the identity of a film director that Paul has counselled over the phone. Hah! Brilliant!
Pegg and Frost purposely made the film as an homage to Spielberg’s work, in particular ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ and ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’, but there are other less obvious references, such ‘Duel‘ being on a cinema marquee. There’s also a Han Solo quote from ‘Star Wars’ (“Boring conversation anyway”) and the Cantina song is played by a band in a barroom scene.
There’s also nods to other franchises, such as the Aliens quote when Tara punches “The Big Guy”. This was great, not just because it was appropriate, but because of the ironic twist present in that scene. I also liked that Clive had a tendency to talk in Klingon from time to time (and, yes, there are subtitles in those moment to ensure that we know what he is saying).
There are some weak spots in the writing, unfortunately, no less of which is the awkward exposition at the beginning (“How long have we wanted to come here?” Ugh), but the hardest to swallow is the religious discussions that pepper the picture in many moments. It’s not so much the content that bothered me, given that I’m firmly an evolutionist, not a creationist. My issue was more in the delivery.
But there has been a fair bit of criticism about the film’s “anti-religious” stance. Although it didn’t really bother me, I can totally understand why some people would take offense to it – the message was a wee bit heavy-handed and it was dismissive of those people’s beliefs. As much as I think it’s a simplistic view of the world, I think that this approach will convert no one. It just makes for a cheap joke.
Otherwise, though, I really enjoyed ‘Paul’. I’ve watched it twice, in fact, because there’s an ‘Unrated’ version on the same disc as the ‘Theatrical’ version. It doesn’t make an ounce of difference, hence why they’re reviewed as one here. I would easily recommend double-billing this picture with ‘Fanboys‘, another geeky road movie – that has unfortunately been largely forgotten. It’s a good fit.
All that would be missing is a little cosplay and some light saber duels and you’d have the perfect geekfest. *cough*
Graeme: “You are an alien!”
Paul: “To you I am, yes.”
Date of viewing: March 23, 2014