– Summary –
Director : Greg Mottola
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kirsten Wiig, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jane Lynch, Blythe Danner, John Carroll Lynch, Jeffrey Tambor, Voice of Seth Rogen.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: Two geeks traveling across America befriend an escaped Alien named Paul, who is trying to return home to his own kind. Pursued by shadowy Agents, as well as a bible-bashing, shotgun wielding father (whose daughter the guys have absconded with!), they race to the secret location where Paul’s alien craft will meet him and return him to his own planet.
What we think : Fans of science fiction will lap this up, even though it does hit a few flat spots here and there, while those not exactly predisposed to appreciate the subtle differences between Star Wars and Star Trek may find this completely uninvolving. I found it hilarious, my wife didn’t. It’s a good film, just not a great one.
Anyone who’s invested even the slightest amount of time in understanding popular culture will recognize the famous image of Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, lazing about in that golden bikini slave outfit in the Star Wars film Return of The Jedi. Undeniably one of cinema’s most celebrated and iconic images, as well as perhaps a masturbatory aide for boys aged thirteen to thirty, the Slave Leia look is among the more popular homages perpetrated at San Diego’s annual Comic Con – that once-a-year event in which thousands of people descend on the city to check out new films, new comic books, locate old and rare items of geek value, and generally nerd around. Paul, directed by Superbad helmer Greg Mottola, and starring geek-icons Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, uses this warm-huggy feeling of nerd camaraderie to generate plenty of laughs based around the culture of science fiction and aliens. It’s a loose comedy adventure film, playing both homage to, and stealing from, some of science fictions most holy cows – lines from Star Wars, references to Star Trek, aliens at Roswell (and many others), all of which adds up to a rich tapestry of love for the genre – although non-sci-fi geeks may find much of the humor slips right over their heads.
Paul (voice of Seth Rogen) is an alien from another world, who’s been living in Area 51 since crashing on a dog back in the 40’s. Escaping imminent death, Paul meets up with two traveling science fiction fans, writer Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) and artist Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg), who’ve decided after visiting Comic Con they want to travel across the country visiting known alien touchstones – Roswell included. The two men decide to help Paul with his escape plan, along the way picking up religious nutter Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig) who ends up being the romantic interest for Graeme, and pursued by the films resident Men In Black, Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), Agent Haggard (Bill Hader) and Agent O’Rielly (Joe Lo Truglio). Numerous sci-fi references include tips of the hat to ET, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (particularly with the LOL-ish finale), Aliens, Star Wars, Back To The Future and others, even though the film really has only one significant special visual effect – Paul himself.
Seth Rogen voices the CGI Paul, a short grey alien in the likeness of that which has penetrated pop-culture since the 40’s – the big black eyes, the spindly limbs and bulbous head. Rogen was obviously not involved in the film prior to the post-production voice work, as many of the behind-the-scenes docos on the BluRay I watched made no mention of him at all; that said, his vocal performance is at first a little jarring, and yet by the end, strangely awesome. I tend to find Rogen a fairly abrasive actor as far as his personality goes, and I’ve yet to watch a film he’s been in where I was actually impressed with his work (Green Hornet was okay, I guess, in that his acting style suited the role he was given), so I have to admit I was put off of this film a little by Rogen’s thick-set vocals. Still, once I got past the obvious stunt casting for the voice (why couldn’t the part have been given to somebody who wasn’t a “household name”? There’s plenty of voice actors out there who may have even done a better job!) and settled into the beats of Paul as a character, I soon got over my prejudice.
The film teeters on the brink of being a complete shambles for anybody unfamiliar with modern geek culture, so heavily layered with references and nods to past glories is this film. Non sci-fi geeks will probably not find even half the jokes in this film amusing (or understand their context) and I’m damn sure I missed a few as well, while I was laughing at others. While I’ve seen geek culture examined on film in more astute ways (Kevin Smith, more than anyone, has made this an art-form) there’s no denying the love Pegg and Frost, who both wrote the script, have for the material. The film pokes gentle fun at science fiction film conventions, from the creepy redneck bible-thumpers to the dirtbowl diner in the middle of nowhere, the local comic-book store and even a massive alien craft descending through the clouds – it’s never snarky, never sarcastic; this film is a love-letter to geeks, nerds, UFOlogists and science fiction fans everywhere. It’s a film by lovers of the genre, for lovers of the genre.
And therein lies the problem with Paul. The film’s so densely packed with in-jokes and references which will most likely fly over the head of all but the most well-versed sci-fi geek, the movie often falls a little flat. While the obvious love for the material is evident in every frame, there’s some pacing issues that undermine the flow of comedic value here. Mottola seems a little conscious of the fact that he’s trying to balance the quick wit of English-bred comedy and the prerequisite of fast-paced Hollywood action, and he can’t quite get the mix right. The action, including some car chases and shoot-outs, are well handled, and the comedic moments have a genuinely sweet nature about them, but sometimes both elements feel a little awkwardly shoehorned together, like oil and water. I’m not sure what Mottola could have done about this, though, without sacrificing some of the films more hilarious moments, but a trimming of some scenes might have helped to keep the flow going well. Paul is uneven, I guess you could say, and I think any criticism of the film would indicate as such. This doesn’t make the film bad, by any stretch, but it prevents the film from becoming an outright classic. It could have been, of that I’m sure, but the uneven flow of the narrative and the sometimes over-edited comedic moments do bring it down a notch.
There’s a lot to like about Paul. There really is. Problem with that is, there’s a feeling of watching a film that’s only half finished – another few weeks in the editing suit might have helped the footloose pacing and somewhat haphazard imbalance between comedy and action (see the Lethal Weapon series for a fine example of how to balance good laughs with high octane action) but overall, you can’t fault the guys behind this for trying. Pegg and Frost come out unscathed, this film doing their US careers no harm whatsoever. Yes, Paul has problems, most of which stem from an overabundance of genre-specific humor, but it’s still an eminently valiant effort and well worth at least one look for a laugh.