(The following review contains minor spoilers)
Shaun of the Dead (2004) was Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s tribute to old school zombie movies, its success stemming from the transposition of the genre’s archetypes and idiosyncratic rules of engagement into an unsuspecting English environ. It was a trick repeated to diminishing returns in their subsequent feature, Hot Fuzz (2007) which played with the conventions of the American action film, in particular the ‘cinema’ of Michael Bay, highlighting (but ultimately succumbing to) its inherent silliness by transposing the setting to a small Gloucestershire village. With Wright presumably busy with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), it falls to actor Nick Frost to share writing credit on their third feature together and Superbad (2007) director Greg Mottola to stand at the helm.
Paul is a celebration of geekdom in all its various mutations, most obviously the films of Steven Spielberg, but closest in tone and shared affections to the Star Wars fan road movie Fanboys (2008). It’s better than Fanboys, but without the visual plays on genre of Edgar Wright, it never reaches the best moments of Shaun of the Dead. Nods, winks and references are the order of the day here, eschewing any of the genre subversions of the previous features. There are few surprises, perhaps as a result of alien encounter pictures being a less established form in their own right, you can’t really play with rules if there aren’t any firmly established, so we’re left with countless references to popular geek culture (some broad, some less so) that occasionally hit the bullseye but often miss by a mile.
Opening with a great prologue straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), we quickly jump forward 60 years to present day San Diego, where Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are attending Comic-Con. After some business with a couple of rednecks (and a great Jane Lynch) en route to the supposed major alien landing sites in the Western and Southern states, the duo witness a car overtake them and spin off the road. Head-lamps in place to investigate, they meet Paul climbing from the wreckage of the car. Paul is a stoner, wise-cracking alien voiced by Seth Rogen, a geek at heart like the pair of them and keen to return home if he can just escape government agent Jason Bateman and his two unwanted sidekicks (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), all taking commands from an unseen female boss known as ‘The Man’. Along the way they pick up one-eyed, ‘God-bothering cyclops’ Kristen Wiig, whose father gives chase, rightly believing his daughter has been abducted by aliens. So it’s essentially a retread of Midnight Run (1988), as the foursome try to make it to Paul’s spaceship before the feds, rednecks, Christians and ‘The Man’ can get to them.
“I’ve always wanted to meet you. Ever since I saw Mac & Me.”
There’s a lot to like in Paul, the relationships credibly drawn between the duo and their new spaceman friend and the CGI work rarely grates. It’s just an over-reliance on the type of stoner-chic comedy, concatenated swearing and an obsession with male genitalia and gay jokes wears thin pretty quickly. That’s not to say that other gags don’t work, the reveal of Jason Bateman’s real name is great, a Spielberg voice cameo works a treat, and perhaps the best (only?) Capturing The Friedmans (2003) joke in cinema almost had me choking on my drink. There’s also a momentarily daring scene which swiftly loses its bottle in which Paul and the boys try to convince Kristen Wiig of the merits of evolution theory versus her staunchly creationist views. Paul telepathically shows her his interplanetary history and experience, arguing that if man were made in God’s image, how does one account for his existence? But without choosing to do the same for her father at the denouement, who has already stopped a bullet with his Bible, there’s a clear message that there’s room for all belief systems and no follow-through to the brief scene beyond her discovery of swearing and ‘fornication’. With Paul healing the blind, giving his life for his fellow man and rising from the dead before ascending into heaven at the end, there’s perhaps another line of questioning to be taken. Or perhaps that’s just a reading too far?
To say the film is narratively conventional would be an understatement and a half, plot points are introduced (Paul bringing a bird back to life for example) which leave you waiting impatiently for their obvious resolution, and lazily broad references which do little with the material they’re playing with leave you acknowledging them but little else. The check-list ends beside Devils Mountain from Close Encounters and the final reveal of the identity of ‘The Man’ elicited groans from the crowd with whom I saw it, counting down the seconds to the inevitable pay-off line.
But the charm of the film (and for all my criticisms it does possess a certain charm) stems from the characterisation on screen. Kristen Wiig is superb, even if she does get bogged down by her one gag and Frost is a natural screen presence. You can see Pegg working harder (if you can take your eyes off his hair piece) but his rapport with Frost benefits from their previous outings together. Only Hader and Lo Truglio fail to spark, playing up too much in a film where, for all its high-concept, is grounded by its familiar representations of human relationships. It’s not hard ultimately, even with an initial scepticism, to be swept up in the love for all things geek that Pegg and Frost clearly want to share.
Paul – 2011 – USA – 103 mins – Dir : Greg Mottola
Paul will be in UK cinemas on Valentine’s Day