Ahoy, squirts! Quint here, sitting on line for a documentary about Santa Clauses, writing a review for an alien buddy road trip movie. That’s how we do it during SXSW!
Paul has been splitting critics, but you’d never know it from the reaction to the premiere screening at the festival. It’s a hard movie for a geek to hate because it’s so obviously and unapologetically made by geeks for geeks. These are people in love with Amblin, Cameron, Lucas, Spielberg and is brimming with nostalgia for a bygone era of filmmaking.
It’s also an incredibly crude, hard-R vulgar comedy. It’s an interesting mix, one that is sometimes very successful, sometimes not so much.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost could do a movie about them sitting in a room learning how to speak Klingon and it’d be interesting. Those two just work so well together. Add in some of the cream of the crop of current comedy talent, like Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader, some vets like Jane Lynch, Seth Rogen, Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Bateman and some high profile geek cameos (including a voice on a speaker that is instantly recognizable to any self-respecting movie nerd) and you get a movie overloaded with talent.
Does the flick live up to that potential? Yes and no. Overall I’d call myself mixed-positive, but there are people who will absolutely feel the flick panders to the geek population. Having followed Pegg and Frost for what feels like a decade now I know how earnest they are about their fandom, how much it permeates their very being, so while many of the jokes are definitely easy (there’s a moment when Pegg and Frost enter a country western bar full of colorful characters and the band is playing a honky-tonk version of the Cantina music from Star Wars) I don’t believe they’re insincere.
Paul has a very basic story (two nerds on a UFO tour of America post-Comic-Con pick up a real alien and must get him home before the government can catch up), but the charm is what keeps the movie’s head above water, the sincerity is what keeps it from becoming insulting.
I don’t want to knock Greg Mottola because he does a great job keeping the pace up and capturing the natural chemistry between his three leads, but I have to think that if someone like Edgar Wright had shot Pegg and Frost’s script that there might have been a little shift away from the more on-the-nose geek references (like, say, when a famous line from a famous movie is said to the person who said that line) and more into the character comedy. I have to believe that a better movie might have been focused on the road trip aspect than on the geek references.
On one hand, Paul is an easy movie to critique, to distance yourself from and try to feel superior to, but there’s an undeniable charm to this movie that is hard to shake. I can’t believe anybody can hate this film… it’s like a puppy that just wants to play and lick your face all day… but I can see people being turned off by the geekiness of it.
On a technical level there’s very little to criticize. It’s very well shot, the effects are strong and sound design what it should be. The effects on Paul himself capture a real personality and he fits into the universe even if he’s ultimately more cartoony than I expected. They seemed to shy away from a photo-real approach, but the little guy works as a character, so that didn’t bug me too much.
The real fun the filmmakers seemed to have with the effects was in recreating an old-school feel to some shots. There’s a landscape of a famous location that felt very much like a painted-on-glass matte shot that you’d find in early Amblin movies (it occurs to me that people who see the film could think I’m referencing one of two shots… both feel like mattes, but the one that jumped to mind when writing is an exterior).
Overall, Paul worked for me in fits and starts, I dug the on-the-run aspect to the movie with Jason Bateman playing a surprisingly good threat (same goes for Bill Hader who starts as a kind of Laurel & Hardy bumbling fool and gradually becomes kind of a creepy man fueled by obsession) and I can’t help but smile at even the most on target, obvious reference to childhood favorite films.