Nerd chic is hardly a new thing, with movies like Fanboys
and any number of Kevin Smith films waxing philosophically, often at length, about the various merits of Star Trek
or The X-Files
or, more commonly, Star Wars
. It’s an odd thing, creating a movie out of nothing more than references to other movies, but of course the best of these referential films stand up on their own. That’s unfortunately not the case for Paul
, which throws a dizzying array of film quotes at the audience, but mostly uses them as a substitute for humor instead of a source for it.
Seemingly aspiring to be a kind of R-rated E.T.
tells the story of wandering British nerds Graeme ( Simon Pegg
) and Clive ( Nick Frost
), at Comic-Con on their first trip to America. From there, they rent an R.V. in search of the most famous U.F.O. sites of the southwest. Frost and Pegg sell their characters' friendship well, with asides delivered in Klingon and a predictable fascination with cheap replica katanas. If anything, you almost wish for a bit more time with them before the mayhem starts; as it is, you're left with barely ten minutes of somewhat obvious digs at convention mainstays like overbearing fantasy authors and slave girl Leia
s before their trip is derailed a bit by the appearance of a new friend.
We're speaking of course of the titular Paul, a squat alien of almost
archetypal appearance, after he crashes his car following an escape from
the underground base he’s been kept in for 60 years. Can a wacky, Blues Brothers
road trip be far behind? Of course not, especially since Paul needs to
book it to reach a pick-up spot designated by his fellow aliens, lest he
be stranded on Earth forever.
That setup leads to all kinds of standard road-trip misadventures, mostly involving various individuals that the group comes across and subsequently pisses off somehow, resulting in at least three different factions (rednecks, an angry fundamentalist Christian, clueless FBI agents) attempting to track down the R.V. and its inhabitants. That leads to a mild amount of tension, but the other half of the film is simply spent with Paul, Graeme and Clive living the high life on the back roads of America. The two sides of the film never quite come together; the notion of Paul being tracked down by the government is undercut by portraying the FBI agents as incompetent buffoons, and the more happy-go-lucky moments aren’t given quite enough time to play out satisfactorily.
Part of that problem might be Paul himself. As a CGI creation, he’s an impressive piece of work, but as a character you’re intended to care about, he works less well; you sympathize with the plight of anyone fighting to get home, sure, but beyond that hook it’s difficult to really care about him specifically. He doesn’t come across as overly sympathetic, beyond his situation, and isn’t tremendously funny, at least not to the point where having a film dedicated to the character seems necessary. Seth Rogen
delivers a perfectly Rogen-y performance as the character's voice, but it winds up seeming like less of a performance than simply the products of a rap session with the actor, complete with weed smoking and discussion about alien testicles.
That problem isn’t restricted to Paul’s character, though; the bulk of the film simply doesn’t work for a general audience. This is the kind of movie that will have a character shoot a radio, say “Boring conversation anyway,” and then simply expect you to laugh. A woman yells “Get away from her, you bitch!” to Sigourney Weave
r, and people who have seen Aliens
will recognize that yes, indeed, that line was used in a much better movie 25 years ago. The mountain from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
appears; a character pretends to be the alien from Predator
; and someone mimics the “are you going to draw me like your French girls, Jack?” line from Titanic
. What’s baffling is that these aren’t delivered as punchlines: these are simply lines delivered like any other lines, other characters make a face like they recognize them, and we move on. This isn’t a comedy so much as a collection of lines from other scripts that have been pasted together, like a hastily-assembled kidnapper’s note.
It’s not all bad, of course, with Kristen Wiig
giving an endearingly profane performance as a good Christian girl who’s liberated from her background by the implication that Paul means that evolution, and thus many other things, might actually be real, and thus is free to deliver a huge amount of incompetent cursing throughout the film. It's kind of an easy role to make funny, what with repeated use of insults like "dickballs!" and sundry other malapropisms, but Wiig sells it wonderfully well, leading to the odd situation where you're waiting for the fourth lead character to be on screen so that you'll get a reliable laugh.
All too often, however, you’re asked to chuckle at yet another
person who faints upon seeing Paul, or yet another
joke about anal probes, or yet another
joke about a girl with three breasts on the cover of a sci-fi novel, etc. Even the actual jokes wind up being half-hearted, delivered with all the care and precision of a bored baseball player throwing up fungoes at fielding practice. Paul
’s a movie that wants so desperately to remind you of other, better movies that it doesn’t seem to quite have the time to ensure that it works as a film itself. It also seems to strive to be both entertainingly dirty and also have a heart that you can latch onto, but doesn’t manage to achieve either. That’s unfortunate, because Paul
is, very strictly speaking, a crowd-pleaser: you just better be sure you’re in the very specific crowd it targets if you want to derive much pleasure from it.