Not to excuse indifference to bloggerly responsibilities on my part, but Paul is the kind of movie that isn’t a lot of fun to review. It’s not terrible, there aren’t any glaring inconsistencies, but it just doesn’t quite work. It’s just not that funny. It’s usually cute, but not quite laugh-worthy, and occasionally obnoxious, but not quite grating. The word that most comes to mind is “thin.” It’s trivial. It’s the acquaintance you always tell yourself you should call more but don’t, and deep down you know exactly why.
It’s a bit of a blue-ball dry rub considering the people involved. I loved director Greg Mottola’s last two movies (Superbad and Adventureland), and getting the double-team from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who also wrote the script) is almost always a good thing. The plot, two nerds find a wacky alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) and have to help it escape the US government that wants to study its brain and harvest its penises for fuel or whatever, is cribbed from the standard 80s-alien-movie formula (ET, Mac & Me, etc). But rather than the clever genre homage seen in the Pegg co-written (with Edgar Wright, whose influence might have been needed here) Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, or the glowy, rich nostalgia of Mottola’s last two movies, what we get instead is just a series of throwaway references to every 80s alien movie, like they wrote it by going down a checklist. Reese’s Pieces reference goes here… okay now what? Not homage, not parody, just, as my co-viewer Brendan from the Frotcast put it, “one long wink.”
Winking at the audience can be fine, but… you should probably tell a joke first.
For instance, one of the recurring motifs (and there weren’t many, for the most part it was just a barely-connected string of one-off sketches) was people fainting at the sight of Paul. Now, I realize that was drawn from a rich history of people fainting in 80s movies, but there was no comment on how that cliché worked or why it was so prevalent, no subtext to give it more meaning than as a lazy plot device (Scott Pilgrim was brilliant because of its clear subtext). It’s just a breakdown of the fourth wall for the purpose of saying, “hey, remember this?”
I do. It was kind of dopey back then. Still dopey now, turns out.
The story’s only supposed justification for the references is that the main characters are pop-culture-obsessed nerds, and in Paul’s past, when he was a captive of the government, he served as a creative consultant on the biggest films of the 80s. In one of the lamer sequences, we see a flashback to Paul on the phone, explaining some of the finer points of alien biology to Steven Spielberg as the latter was writing E.T.. Is that just light-hearted and cute? I guess it could be, depending on your taste. The other people in the theater sure seemed to like it. But to me, this would be like writing a character who’s always saying “Yippee-kai yay, motherf*cker!” because that character is a huge fan of Die Hard, and in the story, even served as a consultant ON Die Hard. Would it make sense? Sure. It’s just sort of… banal. It’s like double explaining a reference in order to prove… that the thing it’s referencing exists? I don’t get it.
The closest I can see to a point behind all this (and it’s not really a point, only a clue to what point there might have been when they started writing it, before they buried it in all the trivialities), was in Kristen Wiig’s character, a sheltered fundamentalist Christian living in an RV park somewhere in the Southwest. She gets caught up in the Pegg/Frost/Rogen madness and at first, she refuses to acknowledge Paul’s existence because it would mean that everything she believes — that mankind is the only life in the universe (of which Earth is the center), and that humans were created in God’s image — is wrong. She’s forced to come to grips with her worldview being wrong, but instead of using that issue to give the movie some… depth? Conflict? Anything, really… it just becomes a device for her to realize that now she can cuss and grab Simon Pegg’s cock and talk about sex, because there’s no hell to worry about. Her inept swearing that results (“Tit farts!”) is funny for a few seconds but… like I said, thin.
That’s really neither here nor there though. Paul didn’t have to be some great allegory for existence, or a clever thinkpiece on mankind’s fascination with aliens, I’m just taking the starting point, the fact that it wasn’t all that funny, and trying to reverse engineer possible reasons why. Sitting through it was a relatively painless experience and there were a few laughs here and there (HUGE laughs for much of the rest of the theater, so maybe I’m the weird one), but for the most part it was lightweight. And not in a good way.
Counterpoint: Edgar Wright obviously disagrees with me, and I see no reason for you not to hear a dissenting opinion. He certainly knows a lot more about making movies than I do.