Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
If people feel the new film starring and written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost falls short in any way, it's likely because the pair (along with their directing and writing cohort Edgar Wright, who has nothing to do with this film) have set the bar so high with SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and their British television series "Spaced" that anything that doesn't hit the near-perfection level of those films may come across as a disappointment. In the hands of director Greg Mottola (SUPERBAD, ADVENTURELAND) PAUL is, by no means, a disappointment, but it may not be exactly what people expect it to be either. The most important thing to understand going in is that Paul is not a parody of alien films. It's a tribute to some of those films, sure, but more than anything Paul is a love letter to the works of Steven Spielberg--and not just CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and E.T. It's also a road movie and a buddy movie meant to downplay the fact that one of the three buddies is an entirely computer-generated alien voiced by Seth Rogen.
For the first time together starring in a film set in the United States, Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, a pair of British geeks who decide to attend Comic-Con in San Diego and then drive an RV through the American southwest and tour reputed alien hotspots like Area 51. While driving, they stumble upon a recent car wreck that has resulted in the escape of a an alien named Paul, who has been living (quite comfortably) for 60 years on a secret military compound. Paul believes the military is essentially done finding him a useful source of information and that all they want from him now is a map of his internal organs. Reluctantly, the Brits allow him to stow away on their RV as they begin their journey to take Paul to a place where he can be picked up by his fellow aliens and taken home. Naturally, the military and government aren't quite willing to give Paul up that easily, and a surprisingly perilous pursuit ensues.
While the movie has some very funny moments that combine stoner humor, movie references, casting choices, and visual gags that pay homage to classic science fiction, PAUL works best when it settles in with its three leads and lets them talk to each other. Even in comedies, but certainly in horror and science fiction works, there is a great power to the lost art of conversation. Developing characters in genre films seems like some mythological creature that an entire generation of young moviegoers has essentially never gotten to experience. How would CLOSE ENCOUNTERS have been accepted today by audiences used to getting regularly paced money shots? Would they have tolerated waiting to see the mothership only at the very end of the film? I'm not comparing PAUL to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, but my point is there are fun and fascinating conversations scattered throughout PAUL. There are also car chases, explosions, and fun special effects, but simply listening to voices made me the happiest while watching this film.
There's a scene in a trailer park, where Graeme, Clive, and Paul are grilling sausages, and it's such a great late-'60s, early-'70s moment of men just sitting around a fire talking, being funny, and not dealing with plot in the slightest. I love the stories Paul tells about his influence on pop culture, movies, and all things alien. According to him, the reason images of an alien with big, tilted eyes and roundish head (much like Paul) have become the accepted look among humans is because the government deliberately put an image of Paul out there, so if he ever was spotted, people would either think he was fake or wouldn't be shocked by his appearance. Paul has also consulted on movies, apparently, and I won't ruin the joke about that, but it's the film's most inspired moment.
While in the trailer park, the boys kinda, sorta inadvertently kidnap Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a bible thumping woman who lives with her father and believes the earth is only a few thousand years old. The idea of meeting an alien is almost more than she can handle. And while the character is great and Wiig makes her greater, Ruth is also unnecessary. Other than as a potential love interest for Graeme, she doesn't really add anything to the story beyond a few very funny moments.
What I did love was seeing Pegg and Frost dialing it back a bit, not that I don't love them pumped full or energy and diving through the air to shoot guns or kill zombies. I also liked seeing Frost not playing "the dopey one" for once. He's a smart man, and it was nice seeing him play the skeptical, level-headed member of the twosome. And then there's Rogen's Paul. It took me about five minutes to stop seeing this character as a computer-generated creation, partly because of Rogen laid-back approach to the alien, but also because of the way Paul is animated, without too many bells and whistles and body parts.
PAUL is loaded with great comic actors in both sizable parts and extended cameos. Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio are agents from the base in hot pursuit of Paul and those in the RV who are harboring him. It becomes clear after a while that Hader and Lo Truglio are different brands of psychotic, and are intent on doing a lot of killing in order to get their alien back. Bateman's Agent Zoil is a bit more properly fleshed out. He's being pushed by his largely unseen boss (referred to as The Big Guy and voiced by a person long associated with aliens) to use every means, including deadly force, to complete his mission. The film also features the like of Jane Lynch, Jeffrey Tambor, David Koechner, John Carroll Lynch, and a nice, unexpected third-act appearance by Blythe Danner.
And speaking of that third act, I found it kind of wonderful that the chase-heavy scenes in this section of the film seemed to mirror a lot of what happens in SUGARLAND EXPRESS and DUEL, two pre-JAWS Speilberg films that many of his fans, including this one, hold very dear. Thanks largely to the great respect and knowledge that Pegg, Frost, and certainly Mottola have and hold for these works, the resulting film has a sweet innocence and charm that I was not expecting. Yes, PAUL also has action, special effects, and alien probe jokes, but I was pulled in my it's slightly more subtle elements, and I think you will be too. There are some extremely smart observations about science fiction and its devoted followers, as well as some surface jabs at easy, slow-moving targets. But overall, I had a great time watching PAUL because there is a degree of character emphasis that I wasn't expecting. I think it saves the movie, actually, and separates it from other recent R-rated comedies.
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