Tuesday, March 22, 2011

PAUL - A Close Encounter of the Comedy Kind.

PAUL Review:

- PAUL may not be in quite the same league as the new-classics Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but it is nonetheless a highly entertaining and endearing buddy comedy. With plenty of pleasingly geeky references, and enough genuine heart to counterbalance all the bodily-function jokes, Paul is a must-see for fans of Brit-comic duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Even if the third ingredient in the comedy trifecta - writer/director Edgar Wright - is sadly missing from this re-teaming of Pegg and Frost, PAUL still feels like a couple of hours of hanging out with old friends. It's geek comfort food.

PAUL tells the tale of two nerdy guys - Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost) - from across the pond, who journey to the US & A on a pilgrimage of geekdom. Their first stop is the San Diego Comic-Con, and from there, they plan to do a cross-country roadtrip based around America's most infamous UFO hotspots - Area 51, Roswell, etc. Of course, their fanboy minds are collectively blown when, while on their roadtrip, they have their own personal close encounter - with a wise-crackin', attitude-laden' alien by the name of Paul. Graeme and Clive agree to help their new E.T. friend phone home, all the while keeping him out of sight of nosy FBI agents, revenge-seeking rednecks, and assorted other men-who-mean-them-harm. With Ruth - a stowaway religious nut (played by SNL's Kristin Wiig) - onboard, all hands are on-deck to help Paul escape the clutches of the US government and contact his mothership. All the while, an unlikely but oddly poignant friendship forms between Graeme, Clive, and Paul (gruffly voiced by Seth Rogen). Bonds are formed, lessons are learned, laughs are shared, and geek love and geek man-love blossoms. It's all pretty by-the-book stuff, but it's also winningly charming thanks to the combined likability-factor of Pegg, Frost, and Rogen.

PAUL is also basically bursting at the seams with talented comedic actors who fill out the supporting cast. Sure, you know going in that you'll be treated to the lovably quirky duo of pegg and Frost, and you know that you've got Seth Rogen voicing your quintissential alien-with-a-'tude. But you've also got Jason Bateman as a driven government agent, and Bill Hader and the ever-reliable Joe Lo Truglio as his FBI underlings. Jeffrey Tambor shows up as a prickly sci-fi author. Jane Lynch cameos as a sassy diner-owner. And even Ellen Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver, shows up as a Big Bad. There are a couple of other funny cameos to boot, but in general, Paul just feels like a nonstop barrage of funny people coming at you.

All of the on-camera talent in Paul probably helps elevate the movie past where it might have been otherwise. The script has its moments, and is littered with plenty of crowd-pleasing references and homages to many of the sacred cows of sci-fi cinema, from Star Wars to E.T. to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Raiders of the Lost Ark (hell, even Mac & Me is name-dropped). There's a whole sequence that takes place at Comic-Con. The feeling of fanboy love is tangible. But, what's missing is the razor-sharp wit and satirical edginess of Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. As I alluded to earlier, Edgar Wright is very much conspicuous by his absence here. The writing is more formulaic and the jokes less clever, and the direction is more run-of-the-mill and less eye-popping than in Wright's previous collaborations with Pegg and Frost. Superbad director Greg Mottolla does an admirable job here, but he gives the movie a stock, 80's-roadtrip-movie-style look and pace. Whereas Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz paid tribute to the classics but also innovated, Paul is more of a warm, cozy blanket type of comedy.

You do wish that Paul spent some more time gently mocking some of the sci-fi greats, because it has a couple of great scenes of satire. The climactic, ET-style mothership landing scene is particularly funny and well-done, for example. But mostly, the movie consists of a lot of humor of the sex, drugs, and toilet variety. Not that there's anything wrong with that, per se. But sometimes it feels a bit too lowest-common-denominator as compared to what you might expect from these folks. Oddly, when Paul does try to delve into satire beyond mocking sci-fi movies, it falters a bit. Kristin Wiig's character, Ruth, is from a fundamentalist, anti-evolution family, and her core beliefs are shattered upon meeting the alien Paul (afterall, where does he fit in to her idea of creationism?). While Wiig has some scene-stealing moments, her character definitely feels sort of cartoonish and heavy-handed, and it feels odd that a sci-fi homage like PAUL spends so much time critiquing religious fundamentalism - it just seems out of place.

Still, PAUL is perhaps much more likable than it might have been without the dynamic duo of Pegg and Frost front and center. The two are now a bit older and a bit shaggier than before, but they still radiate so much genuine fanboy enthusiasm that you've got to love 'em. And it therefore holds true that the movie's most enjoyable moments revolve around its two leads. On one hand, all of their geeky shout-outs are awesome and a lot of fun. On the other hand, I really liked the scenes in Paul that sort of reflected Pegg and Frost's own journey from starving fanboys to Comic-Con icons. Like their real-life counterparts, Paul's duo of Graeme and Clive - through determination, persistance, and lots of luck - go from geeky zeros to fanboy heroes, and that's where the movie's big heart really shines through. You can't help but root for these guys - both the actors themselves and the characters they portray. Even when Paul isn't firing on all cylinders, you know that Pegg and Frost are doing their best to fight the good fight.

My Grade: B+

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