Film Review: “Paul”

by Jason LeRoy on March 18, 2011

Simon Pegg, Kristen Wiig, Nick Frost, and the voice of Seth Rogen in PAUL. Photo by Double Negative/Universal Pictures – © 2011 Universal Studios.

starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Blythe Danner, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Sigourney Weaver, Jane Lynch, David Koechler, Jesse Plemons, John Carroll Lynch, and the voice of Seth Rogen

directed by: Greg Mottola

written by: Nick Frost and Simon Pegg

MPAA: Rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use.

If ever there was a comedy that knows its audience, it’s Paul. This reference-laden science fiction chase flick stars frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) as Graeme and Clive, two hapless British nerds on holiday in America. They begin at the mecca of all things nerdy, Comic-Con in San Diego, then continue on a road trip across the southwest visiting famous alien sites. But when the two friends, themselves cultural aliens who are mistaken for a gay couple everywhere they go, cross paths with an actual space alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) on the run from some hot-in-pursuit feds, they find themselves on a real-life sci-fi adventure.

This is by far the broadest film Pegg and Frost have done, and unlike the transcendent Fuzz and Shaun, they don’t exactly knock this one out of the park. It lacks the audacity and nerve of their earlier films. What we have here is an extremely formulaic fugitives-on-the-run movie, with a dash of sci-fi, infused with the personalities of its stars/co-writers. It is also a lazy American satire, taking aim at the broadest of stereotypes (rednecks, religious nuts) as Graeme and Clive travel across Arizona and New Mexico.

But while most of the parody is as broad as the many barns they drive past, the film takes off its gloves when critiquing American right-wing Christians, as embodied by Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a sheltered church-going woman living under the rule of her tyrannical Bible-thumping father (John Carroll Lynch) at the trailer park they own. While Pegg insists in an interview with Movieline that the film is not intended to offend, it no doubt will, packing nearly as strong a punch as the Christianity segment of Religulous into just a few scenes. The religion-skewering isn’t bad in and of itself; it just clashes tonally with the rest of the film, veering into somewhat mean-spirited territory from an otherwise gentle and sweet-natured narrative.

But despite its shortcomings, Paul is still a very funny and entertaining movie. Pegg and Frost have lovingly stuffed the film with as many nerdy inside-joke references as its running time will allow; if you’re lucky, you’ll see it with a crowd that shrieks with delighted recognition at each and every one. And it is directed by the invaluable Greg Mottola, who’s directed such gems as The Daytrippers, Superbad, and Adventureland, as well as episodes of Arrested Development, The Comeback, and Undeclared.

They’ve also assembled one hell of a cast. It is especially good to see SNL MVP Wiig finally getting a substantial role that showcases her impressive talents as an actress and comedienne. With Bridesmaids right around the corner, hopefully this is just the beginning for her. We also get an unexpectedly moving third-act performance from Blythe Danner as a lonely woman left scarred and isolated by an encounter she had with Paul as a young girl. Really, the only casting misstep is Seth Rogen as the voice of Paul. Rogen’s braying donkey voice is by far the worst of his many less-than-endearing traits, and while it’s certainly unmistakable, it is also cringe-inducing.

Paul is less inspired than Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, but it is still rollicking and hilarious enough to pretty much guarantee a good time.

RIYL: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; sci-fi comedies à la The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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