Oh, Paul. You’re a movie that I immediately want to be BFFs with. It didn’t take much, with your stellar cast and tried and true buddy-comedy/road trip formula, but somehow you managed to sneak up on me and exceed the level of silly wonder that I wanted from you. Well done.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star in their third major feature together, and while Paul doesn’t quite seem to be on the same level as their collaborations with Edgar Wright – there’s something human about those films that feels a tiny bit forced here – it still manages to allow the duo perfect opportunities to ham it up using their trademarks. The duo seem to be riding the audience’s expectations at this point in their partnership – which is flat out mistaken for homosexuality often in this film – but they still know how to play off each other well. Pegg still bites his knuckle and gets wide eyed while Frost still gets to be the more volatile, yet harmless part of the duo. Their interactions with others, like Kristin Wiig’s bible-thumper turned captive and Jason Bateman’s straight-faced Man in Black, seem to amplify our expectations of the actors, but it works out well because they’re likeable as everyman characters when considered against Hollywood’s more polished stars.
The biggest third wheel to enter their lives this time is Paul, the extraterrestrial who sends them on their journey across the Western US. Paul is voiced by Seth Rogen, and I must admit I didn’t know how well Rogen would fit with the British funny men. Thus, I found myself extremely pleased as Rogen’s turn as the foul-mouthed Paul progressed. The character of the alien, who’s blessed with far more knowledge than the bumbling “nerds”, matches up well with Rogen’s direct delivery of the lines, yet he’s still able to slip down an octave and portray a natural companion to the duo. By the end of the film, I found myself respecting Rogen’s comedic style as much as I did in the misunderstood Observe and Report from a couple of years ago. His ability to balance humanity and insanity in that film was certainly on an opposite end of the spectrum from Paul, but both films show that he can play both sides of a character with ease.
Paul’s comedic formula is nothing too groundbreaking – the characters face recurring obstacles as they try to reach an objective – but the energy the actors bring to the material helps immensely. Frost & Pegg wrote the script themselves, so it’s easy to see why they’re so comfortable as the leads, but their supporting cast never seems to miss a beat either. Wiig and Bateman both fill their roles with ease, and neither is stretching too much from the kind of roles we expect from them. Joe Lo Truglio and Bill Hader add a lot of laughs as the bumbling rookie MiBs, and veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch is a fun presence as the militant Christian father of Wiig’s character. There are a few gags that fall flat with some side characters – a late film drug joke with Blythe Danner falls flat and the couple appearances of former SNL funnyman David Koechner seem to be reused Dumb & Dumber gags – but the comedy works in general because the primary characters are so fun to hang out around.
Paul also hits a nerd home run by featuring more references to other movies and pop culture into each minute than I thought was possible. Almost all of one famous director’s films are mentioned, and the man himself even makes a brief vocal cameo. Sigourney Weaver, who gained fame through Alien encounters, has had her presence in the film spoiled by advertising, but the reveal when she does show up is quite good. In the meantime, almost every scene features some kind of nerdy reference to everything from Back to the Future to Capturing the Friedmans. Pegg and Frost were born from geek culture, and they have it down to an art form here.
I know Paul is a bit lacking cinematically due to its paint by numbers plot and stereotypical characters. But when it’s painted this well and the characters are this fun, I don’t mind one bit. This is an R-rated comedy that stays lighthearted, and it reminds me of the kind of comedies we’d expect from the 1980s. The fact that much of the film seems to be on cruise control doesn’t distract me from how much fun I had with Paul, because it’s a film that should do for sci-fi what Zombieland did for horror. I highly recommend it to any of my fellow nerds out there.