These probably aren't the droids you're looking for
By Benjamin Radford
Directed by Greg Mottola
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman
In the new buddy film Paul, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play Graeme and Clive, a science-fiction writer/artist team who take a road trip to San Diego’s Comic-Con convention—the mecca of sci-fi and comic book geekery. They make stops along the way to see places of alien pop culture relevance like Area 51 and, of course, Roswell. (There’s another New Mexico connection as well—except for a handful of exteriors, Albuquerque’s very own Convention Center doubled for Comic-Con during shooting last year.)
The pair exchange nerd banter in Klingon and debate the finer points of sci-fi minutia (such as whether Han shot first in the Mos Eisley Cantina) in front of bewildered outsiders. The film starts out amiably enough, with recurring jokes about peeing, whether the protagonists are gay and the carnal potential of three-breasted alien women.
The trip plods along with all the usual road trip hijinks until they stumble across an alien named Paul (a computer-generated imp voiced by Seth Rogen), who asks for their help in getting back to his planet. It seems Paul has been in government custody since 1947, and now he’s on the run from Men in Black (or at least one Man in Black and a couple of inept cops) trying to recover him. Diminutive, cranky aliens have been around for years (see, for example, the ’80s NBC sitcom “ALF,” or the animated FOX show “American Dad”). Paul is another one. He’s like E.T.’s reprobate cousin who’s spent a little too much time hanging out with Charlie Sheen, drinking, smoking and cursing like a sailor.
Diminutive, cranky aliens have been around for years (see, for example, the ’80s NBC sitcom “ALF,” or the animated FOX show “American Dad”). Paul is another one.
The rest of the film is an extended chase, with various hidden and not-so-hidden references to countless sci-fi films, from Alien to Mars Attacks! to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are some laughs to be found in Paul, though the humor is uneven. One scene involves the trio at a road sign that notifies travelers of a time zone change. “Hey, look! It’s like time travel!” Paul exclaims, and the three of them hop back and forth on the road across the imaginary time zone line, giggling and pretending to time travel with every jump. Hilarity does not ensue.
Paul’s potential is weighed down with clunky subplots that don’t really pay off. Chief among them are a contrived romance between Graeme and a one-eyed fundamentalist Christian RV park attendant (Kristen Wiig), and Paul’s reunion with a woman who lives in the same house she did in 1947 as a young girl—and whose dog Paul accidentally squashed when he landed on Earth.
Part of the problem is that Paul seems unsure of who its audience is. It’s too foul-mouthed for kids (F-bombs fly around like lights over Area 51, earning it a solid R rating), yet contains a lot of lowbrow humor aimed at kids and teens. It’s the sort of film where people faint by closing their eyes and falling straight backwards. I get the homage, but it all may be a little too in-jokey for the causal filmgoer.
Director Greg Mottola (best known for teen coming-of-age comedies like Adventureland and Superbad), helms this alien satire. The script was written by stars Pegg and Frost, who previously teamed up for a buddy zombie movie (cult fave Shaun of the Dead) and a buddy cop movie (Hot Fuzz), though Pegg went solo for the tamer and lamer Run, Fatboy, Run. The pair can be funny, but also hit-and-miss. Paul is no exception.
Ultimately, Paul is a mixed bag. The plot—what there is of it—gets lost under a steady stream of one-off jokes and references to science-fiction films that may or may not have a broader appeal beyond film buffs and the Comic-Con/Dragon*Con/Bubonicon crowd. Like an alien trying to get back home, Paul searches earnestly for the right tone but doesn’t really settle on one. Paul works as a love letter to alien films and sci-fi nerds, but it may not be addressed to you.
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