AUSTIN – It’s strange to be in Austin and to keep running into Edgar Wright, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg, and to realize that they’re not all here for the same movie.
“Paul,” which Universal will release on March 18, is a SF road comedy starring Frost and Pegg as two friends who travel to America for the San Diego Comic-Con. Afterwards, they hit the road in a rented RV, and while they’re visiting the various UFO-related sites in the west, they find themselves on a desert highway in the middle of the night where they witness a terrible car accident. The only thing to survive the accident is a small grey alien who introduces himself as Paul, voiced by Seth Rogen. He needs a ride to a rendezvous point because it’s time for him to leave our planet and head home, and the only two people who can help him are Clive (Frost) and Graeme (Pegg).
The film uses the basic language of shared SF fandom as a starting point, and before I get to what I like about “Paul,” let me offer up a few things I didn’t. There are “Family Guy”-style on-the-nose reference jokes in several major moments in the film, and for my personal taste, all of them fell flat. When a character shoots his CB radio to end a conversation and actually says, “Boring conversation anyway,” or when a country-western version of the Cantina theme is playing as someone walks into a bar or when a particular line of dialogue is used to punctuate a punch, each and every time I felt embarrassed, not included. I don’t need the specific and pointed direct references to other movies to enjoy what I’m watching. In Joe Cornish’s “Attack The Block,” there are certainly many other movies that are mixed up in the formula, but there’s no moment in the film where it stops to specifically turn and wink and nudge your ribs and say, “Hey, I saw ‘Star Wars’!” It’s too much for me, and I think I’ve become burned out on direct film references in other movies. Then again, I didn’t mind it in “Rango” because of the way they were repurposed to be jokes on the mere act of recognition, turning meaning inside out in many cases.
And in this second problem, I debated included it in the review at all because I really like Pegg and Frost, and they both do good work in the film, but I have to be honest about something that kept pulling me out of the movie. I think Pegg and Frost wrote roles for guys in their early 20s, and as good as they are, as still-present as their chemistry is, they are simply too old to be these characters as they’re written. In a way, Pegg has now proven his own point about ever going back to “Spaced,” because that show was about people at a certain point in maturity, going through certain changes. Guys who are Pegg and Frost’s age aren’t really these guys. They probably were, at one point, but unless the point of the film is that the two of them are broken and that this is something to be regretted, I have a hard time buying it. It’s strange to say you didn’t like someone playing something they wrote for themselves, but in this case, I think I would have preferred either a different riff on the characters or different roles for them, like perhaps the agents chasing Graeme and Clive.
Having said that, overall, I think “Paul” is fairly successful. I do think that Pegg and Frost have an onscreen bond that is impossible to question. They’ve got a great easy rhythm to the way they work together, and they’ve surrounded themselves with some very strong supporting cast members. Kristen Wiig probably comes off best overall, and part of that is because it’s a very clever conceit. She’s the daughter of a longtime fundamentalist, and she believes the Earth is 4000 years old and that there was no evolution. When she comes face to face with Paul, her entire world (and beyond) view shifts, and she spends the rest of the film making up for lost time. She is absolutely adorable as she learns to swear and smoke and more, and it seems genuine. It’s character based, and in a way, it’s the most overtly atheistic storyline in a film since “The Invention Of Lying.” Jason Bateman, Joe Lo Truglio and Bill Hader are the agents in pursuit of Paul, and they all shine in different ways. Hader sort of runs away with the movie for me, and like Wiig, he plays a character who experiences a paradigm shift, and who makes some big decisions as a result. In both cases, there’s nothing about the humor that comes from something else. It’s all about these characters responding to a real situation. Sigourney Weaver didn’t really work for me, but it’s because it’s treated more like a joke than a character. Blythe Danner is great, on the other hand, because she’s allowed a very real reaction to Paul as a character.
And that, in my opinion, is the film’s greatest accomplishment. Paul works as a character, as a performer, as a living thing. He is successfully realized by both the digital and physical artists who worked on him, and it’s easy to stop thinking about him as an effect and simply accept him. Yes, I was well aware that Seth Rogen was the voice of Paul, because Seth is so recognizable, but because Seth plays things so casually, the animators had to change the typical big-gesture big-energy animation that characterizes your typical CGI creations. Paul is fairly laid back, and he’s conversational, and he’s able to give an impression of improvisation. That’s one of the things that distinguishes a performer from an effect in my opinion, and that’s what makes the Muppets performers and not just puppets. There is room for the accidental, and Paul gives off that impression.
The film delivers laughs and heart and some strong ideas and energy, and Greg Mottola is to be credited with finding way to wrangle a number of different tones into something cohesive, and it’s one more quiet triumph in a row for him. “Superbad,” “Adventureland,” and now this, he’s developing into a gentle wit with a huge human heart, and that’s what makes these films live and breathe beyond what could easily be some pretty narrow genre restraints. If you don’t mind the overt reference stuff, you’ll probably like it even more than I did, but even with that stuff, “Paul” is strong fun, and proves that Frost and Pegg working as a writing team have a voice distinct from whatever other work they’ve done. I look forward to them continuing to redefine their onscreen partnership in fresh ways in many more films to come.
“Paul” opens everywhere March 18 and just premiered at the SXSW Film Festival.