There are a lot of endearing qualities in Paul, a spoofy alien comedy that parodies ComiCon culture and pop sci-fi and throws in so many references to movies and TV shows and comics that you’ll have trouble keeping count. But there’s not quite enough to make up for a meandering plot that lacks any real momentum and turns the final act into a drag.
Director Greg Mottola previously made Superbad, and stars and co-writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost previously made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz for director Edgar Wright. Shaun was a classic, and Fuzz and Superbad only a notch below, so expectations for this film – which matches Pegg and Frost with a CGI alien voiced by Seth Rogen – were high.
But I ultimately felt the same way about Paul that I felt about Wright’s last film, the comic book-based, video game-infused Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. This should be right in my wheelhouse – as a fan of the parodied material, someone who identifies with the culture – but by the end I was alienated.
All the references and asides are great, but you need something more to make a compelling feature film. Pegg and Frost star as Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, two British sci-fi nerds who have made the trek to San Diego for ComiCon, the annual comic book (and sci-fi, video game, etc.) festival that has recently become Mecca for all things geekdom.
Afterwards, they plan to tour the Southwestern US in a rented RV to see Roswell, Area 51, and all the alien-friendly sights in-between.
But they get more than they bargained for when they run into Paul, an actual living, breathing alien who has escaped government facilities and is on the run from Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) and local authorities played (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio). Paul hitches a ride from a reluctant Graeme and Clive, and soon they pick up repressed young Catholic Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), to boot.
What does Paul want? Where is he going? “It’s best you don’t know, for your own protection” Paul tells them, which might be true for Graeme and Clive, but not so much for us.
The film’s second act becomes a road movie without a clear goal, which isn’t so bad because Paul himself is funny and endearing and (as voiced – and motion-captured – by Rogen) more human than the characters that surround him.
But after a while, things grind to a halt; it’s all just Paul and crew on the run from the authorities (and Ruth’s father) Smokey and the Bandit-style. As the action-packed conclusion rears its head – with car chases, explosions, and characters getting bumped off left and right – the film had lost me.
Pegg is at his best when playing things straight and deadpan. Here, he’s broad and ineffective, echoing his performance in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Fortunately, Frost picks up the slack. Paul also features a great supporting cast of comedic talents, but most of them aren’t given very much to do.
I had to laugh at obscure references to Lorenzo’s Oil and Mac and Me, the Star Wars cantina music in a redneck bar, a re-enactment of the famously awful Star Trek fight scene, and all the one-liners that are directly lifted from Jaws, Aliens, and other films.
And I appreciated the way Mottola doesn’t underscore these gags, passing them on as subtly as possible in a get-them-or-don’t manner. Even if Paul doesn’t work entirely on the whole, there’s still a lot to like here.