Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s close encounter comedy revives the comic adventures of the 1980s.
Geek culture has entered the American mainstream, not from any cultural impetus or because the film and television industries realized the tremendous storytelling potential of its legions of franchises. Rather, money – the fortunes to be made in celebrating and exploiting what was once an outlying, fringe element of society – is too good to pass up. Too, it helps that some of the best comedic minds around right now proudly wave their geek cred.
That crossover continues in glorious scale, and in fact probably makes its grand arrival, with the very funny satire/homage Paul, the funniest American film since last year’s The Other Guys and a career high for several of its creative forces. Not for the faint of sensibilities and especially not for anyone humorless about their purpose driven life, it’s nevertheless bawdy, smart fun for the rest of us.
After years of anticipation, lifelong British geeks and (to quote geek tycoon Kevin Smith) hetero life-mates Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) embark on a trip across America, beginning with a visit to the San Diego Comic-Con and continuing with a sojourn to the sites of reported extraterrestrial contact throughout the American Southwest. The two are pleasantly astonished by American excess, drinking in the oddities of the alien-themed tourist traps but mostly remaining at a safe distance within their rented RV. Clive, though, is restive after a convention meeting with their favorite science fiction author (Jeffrey Tambor) proves underwhelming.
Driving along a desolate highway at night and fleeing two bullying rednecks (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons), the two witness a black sedan fly crashing off the road. Investigating the wreck, they encounter the ET code-named Paul (voiced by Set Rogen) by his government caretakers. Paul had crashed to Earth decades before, and since then has covertly advised the U.S. military and the American entertainment industry. Now with his knowledge all but exhausted by his top-secret hosts, Paul fears vivisection at the hands of the shadowy “Big Guy” controlling his concealment. He begs for Graeme and Clive’s help in reaching an unspecified destination – “You’ll know it when you see it, guys,” he tells them - before government Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) catches up to him.
At times evoking memories of comic book icon and movie disaster Howard The Duck, Paul is no one’s idea of an enlightened being. Quick to curse and nursing a love for cigarettes, pot, and easy living, he’s nonetheless privy to cosmic secrets that leave mere humans scratching their heads. Able to camouflage himself to his surroundings and to heal minor energies through energy transference, he’s also a stronger personality than his human cohorts, more assured by way of being confident of his place in the universe.
Stopping overnight at the Pearly Gates trailer ranch, the trio picks up an unintentional hostage in Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a creationist and devout Christian immediately at odds with Paul’s very existence. When Paul heals an eye that was damaged during childhood, she resolves to live the most debauched life she can, arguing if there’s no such thing as sin then her behavoir can’t be wrong. “I plan to fornicate a lot!” she tells a smitten Graeme.
The group inches towards their destination while eluding Zoil, Ruth’s bible-thumping father (John Carroll Lynch) and two junior agents (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) looking to prove themselves to the Big Guy. A detour to the site of Paul’s arrival on Earth gains them another passenger, the woman (Blythe Danner) who as a girl saved him from the wreckage of the UFO. Paul regrets her involvement, and the social ostracism it caused, and wants to make amends before leaving.
Ultimately the group reaches the site of the alien rendezvous, escaping the agent’s clutches and facing down the Big Guy in a series of surprising twists. (The villain’s identity is meant to be a surprise, so I won’t spoil it here.) A neat epilogue brings the story back around to the Comic-Con, where Clive and Graeme revel in the success Paul’s inspiration has brought them.
Written by Pegg and Frost, the script under the direction of Greg Mottola plays as a more well-rounded and mature effort than the duo’s previous Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, and another accomplishment for Mottola following 2009′s deeply underrated Adventureland. Their American costars – Rogen, Wiig, Heder, Bateman – understand the deadpan glee the two bring to their stories, and adjust their performances accordingly. Wiig, probably comedy’s next great leading woman, is alternately melancholy and explosive as the newly- and happily-unsheltered Ruth; Bateman, an odd choice to play a heavy, twists Michael Bluth’s legendary sarcasm to a new pungency. Hader and Lo Truglio perform the least, though their parts are written barely above the level of stock characters.
Only once does the film seem to lose its comic footing, during an excessively violent chase sequence that sees two characters blown up and another shot in cold blood. Though Pegg and Frost have said the film is an homage to Steven Spielberg (the script is loaded with references to his 1980s films, and even includes a brief but oddly tepid phone conversation between Paul and Spielberg as himself), the influence of other comedy adventures from the decade stays readily apparent. In its occasionally unwieldy fusion of snarky comedy and special effects-driven adventure the film sometimes resembles, probably deliberately, 80s classics including Ghostbusters, Spies Like Us, and Neighbors. (We can easily imagine a 1985 version starring John Candy and Dan Ackroyd as the geeks, with Bill Murray as the voice of Paul.)
Though it’s not necessary, and indeed may only have bogged things down, for as intelligent as the film can sometimes become the absence of explanation or discussion of geek culture – its sources and enduring resistance to mainstream ridicule as well as the passage of time – remains an odd emptiness at the center of Graeme and Clive’s characters. They’re, at heart, intelligent and intrepid men, and their fascination with three-breasted alien women and samurai swords seems at cross-purposes to their capacity for daring. It’s suggested, vaguely, that a life of sci-fi fascination gave them such strengths, but only barely and not enough to resonate through the entire film.
Still, few modern comedies even try as much at once as Paul, and if there’s not room for everything the filmmakers could have done there’s still quite a lot – including at least a dozen inspired references to all those 80s sci-fi adventures. Listen for them pepper their way through the dialogue, because they demonstrate the affection that fuels the entire movie. You don’t have to catch all of them, but you’ll probably feel closer to the characters if you do.
- Michael Kabel