[Paul. Released March 2011. Directed by Greg Mottola, Writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, this review contains many spoilers.]
This film is rated SFF, as in for science fiction fans. I’m tempted to say only for science fiction fans. Unlike Men in Black or Galaxy Quest, two other very good science fiction comedies, Paul needs a fairly deep background in science fiction movies and television to be appreciated. I mean on one level the whole thing is homage to Steven Spielberg (who has a brief voice-role) and for another it’s about two British blokes visiting Comic-Con in San Diego and then road-tripping through all the alien occurrence locations in the American Southwest. So yes, it’s permeated with sci-fi insider references and jokes, which if you miss them don’t kill the humor but sort of takes the polish off the comic pace. The movie also makes a thing out of bad language, potty jokes, rednecks, Christian Fundamentalist beliefs and sexual innuendo of one kind or another. If such things put you off, Paul is probably not the movie for you.
The two British blokes, Graeme Willy, played by Simon Pegg and Clive Gollings, played by Nick Frost are best buds on a holiday of a lifetime for sci-fi geeks. Gollings is a sci-fi author and Willy does the illustrations for him, including the most important running gag of the movie – the cover for Gollings’ unfinished book which features a green-skinned alien giantess with three breasts. Everyone who sees it, which is almost every other character in the story, says “Awesome.” Except one, who says, “You should have given her four tits.” It’s like everyone who sees this kind of movie will have their point of view about it. Humor is like that, isn’t it?
Speaking of tastes in humor, if that isn’t an oxymoron, Paul is mostly gentle satire mocking science fiction beliefs and mores. With the exception of skewering Christian fundamentalist ideas about evolution, the satire, such as it is, is almost nostalgic. Not that many attempts at satire achieve that anyway. What Paul does seem to want to achieve is a non-stop flow of visual, verbal, referential and situational gags. It does this quite well and unlike, say Mel Brook’s Spaceballs, it does it while still maintaining a believable and realistic tone in the acting. The storyline is something else….
The movie plays the story straight, like it’s really happening. Like a space alien is real who appears to be something right out of the X-Files, and is a rude, crude and cool animated dude voiced by Seth Rogan. Integrated animation though it is, it pretty much works. Paul is the pivotal character of the movie. He (sic) sets up most of the hilarious situations of the road trip as it lurches from California to Wyoming. Obviously you have to suspend disbelief about an alien visitor trying to return home, just as most people will forget Paul is animation. In fact, Paul is so well integrated into the plot that he is the most worldly and human character in the movie – he’s earthy in every sense of the word – which I think is the point.
Much of the movie works – is funny – because of clever dialog that mostly grows out of situations, although some of it is obviously meant to echo or refer to similar science fiction dialog. What really makes it work is the acting and comic timing of a very good collection of actors. Besides Pegg and Frost, no slouches themselves, are veteran comedic actors Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development), Jane Lynch (Glee), Jason Bateman (Juno, Arrested Development), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids, SNL), Blythe Danner (Huff, Meet the Parents) and an end of film smash cameo by Sigourney Weaver. A good comedic script by Pegg and Frost plus this talented cast keeps the movie humming with humor right to the end. So much so, in fact, that you begin to expect clever and unexpected turns just because it’s that kind of movie. For example, there’s one scene where Paul brings a bird back to life as a demonstration of his healing powers. You just know as the moment progresses, probably because of similar scenes in E.T. and Starman, that something unexpected is going to happen. It does. Paul eats the bird, “You don’t expect me to eat a dead bird, do you?”
Paul is the kind of movie I have to be careful about reviewing. I like it too much. Its ribald and good natured style of humor appeals to me and I appreciate the way a sense of realism is maintained within an unreal comic plot. I also realize that reactions to just those things will vary a great deal. Some people will find the story too busy, the humor too soft, or the SF references too many – whatever. I think most people will at least find much of it funny, and the movie well made and entertaining. It didn’t get much of a following during its initial theatrical release, but I hope it will find its audience on DVD and Blu-ray. It deserves it. Good science fiction comedy is very hard to do.