Film Review: Paul

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Alienating the Audience

[Paul, Greg Mottola, UK/US, 2011, 104mins]

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have made a career out of eulogising their favourite elements of pop culture. Their much loved TV Brit-com Spaced was wall-to-wall with knowing references, and the duo’s first two forays into cinema, along with director Edgar Wright, were both affectionate tributes to genre movies; Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were less parodies than they were a wry British take on the zombie and action genres, respectively. There was no sense of spoof – rather they transposed a familiar Hollywood blueprint into a suburban British context and comedy flowed successfully from this clash of cultures.  When the heroes in Shaun are faced with the prospect of a zombie attack, their uniquely English solution is first, to have a cup of tea, and second, to go to the pub.

All of the Spaced team have seen their profiles rise in recent years and so Paul represents the first joint Hollywood effort from Pegg and Frost, whose longtime acting partnerships has here extended to a writing one. The pair play comic book geeks who, whilst embarking on a holiday visiting alien tourist attractions, encounter a real alien at Area 51, and endeavour to help him get back to his home planet. This is their take on sci-fi, and now at their disposal is a big budget, an all-star cast, a Hollywood director and the benefit of vast American landscapes as the backdrop of this road trip movie.  Gone, more or less, are the quaint British sensibilities on the Hollywood model – this is an affectionate tribute on a grand scale.

With Paul, however, it’s less affectionate than it is frenzied lust and admiration for its subject. In interviews Pegg and Frost have accurately called their film a “love letter” to sci-fi, and they have done so with obvious zeal.  But there is certainly a very real danger that a sizable portion of their audience won’t get the jokes.  This is a film rammed with knowing, nerdy references, and for those yet to see Close Encounters or E.T., the crux of the gags will potentially fall on deaf ears, and frowning faces.

This is also a much broader brand of comedy than we’re used to from this team. The eponymous Paul, a slacker, stoner alien voiced by Seth Rogen, is a plentiful source of humour, but on the proviso that you find childish, frat-boy comedy funny. Indeed, much of Paul’s success rate is largely subjective to the viewer – are you the sort of person who finds a CGI alien mooning funny? Are you the sort of person who will understand the nerdish significance of a character telling Sigourney Weaver to “get away from him, you bitch”?

It could be said that the British pair have lost their edge. Part of the blame must rest on Greg Mottola, whose presence in the director’s chair only amplifies Edgar Wright’s absence. Where Wright’s style called for frenetic, pacy action, Mottola opts for a slower, eighties style, aiming for (and missing) John Hughes. It’s surprising considering his first two films were rich in semi-improvisational wit and keenly observed teen characterisation. Here, his directorial stamp seems lacking. He appears to be more of a gun for hire, a Wright-lite.

Still, that’s not to say that Paul can’t be occasionally entertaining. Pegg and Frost have always managed to surround themselves with a fine calibre of comic actors, and the supporting cast here is uniformly excellent – from Saturday Night Live, the sublime Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig; from Arrested Development, the marvellous Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor; and from sci-fi of yore, the legendary Sigourney Weaver, whose pantomimic villainess is only seen is Blofeld-esque close-ups until the final showdown. All are on excellent form and bring an extensive comic mix to the table.

And though Pegg and Frost may have lost some of their subversive edge, they have retained their heart. Their last two films together could both be read as a love story between two straight men, and here that theme is played up to full extent. The characters allow for their best homoerotic chemistry yet seen on screen, and their twenty year real-life friendship provides ample warmth and humanity amidst the madcap comedy. Paul is far from perfect, and certainly their worst film, but it’s nonetheless a big, fun, dumb movie, which should more than adequately indulge their geeky target audience, and may even provoke smirks from those outside it.

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