Is it possible to still give a positive review to a film that is not up to standards with the creative talents’ previous efforts? I guess so, because I am about to do it. This film is not as good as Shaun of the Dead or Superbad. But Paul is better than most of the comedies out there. The talent present makes sure of that.
Paul is one of those films that is aware it is a remake (or homage). In this case, Paul borrows from ET and Starman quite heavily (a gag involves Paul collaborating with Spielberg as he writes the former). It makes sense, then, that Paul is more human than all of the humans involved in his plight – he needs to be the voice of reason in the alien plot that he “created.” But if I have any complaints, it is that the humans are not quite human enough and Paul (with his perpetual slacker mentality) is not alien enough. But the dynamics that the characters create make up for it, creating a very funny comedy.
The film is about two British nerds, Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) who attend Comic Con and then plan a trip across the American southwest to see the UFO hot spots. But during this road trip, they run into an alien who calls himself Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul is responsible for all of the alien sightings over the last sixty years, and is responsible for a few technological advances. Now, the government has decided he is obsolete and he wants to go home. But a government agent named Zoil (Jason Bateman) is hot on his tail and is looking to return Paul, while Graeme and Clive are joined by an evangelical Christian named Ruth (Kristen Wiig) who agrees to help Paul after he imparts the knowledge of the universe to her.
I did like Paul as a character, even though Seth Rogen did nothing in the way of “acting” for the role. Still, the character as it was written probably called for someone exactly like Rogen. Go with what you have. The person who I really felt was going through the motions was Simon Pegg. He is basically playing Tim Bisley all over again. But it doesn’t work as well for a human who is meeting an alien. Now, for too such nerdy characters, it would make sense that they would be comfortable with the idea of aliens. But in actually meeting one, they treat it as an encounter with a friend who has learned a cool party trick.
Paul is not the oddity in this film. Those nerdy characters are. Remember how the alien in Starman was something that people had to adapt to? How, even at the end of the film, those closest to him were still not sure what to make of him? That is not the case here. Everyone embraces Paul’s existence, including the woman whose world view he has utterly shattered. That is the true weakness of the film.
Still, it is an area that the film recovers from nicely. Most of this has to do with subtle portrayal of geek culture and science fiction films. The opening scenes at Comic Con look very accurate, and Jeffery Tambor’s cameo as a science fiction writer is one of the funniest in quite some time. There are also numerous references to other films, some subtle, some not. It would not surprise me if some sort of commentary that documents them all.
How does this help the problems with the characters? It gives the work a sense of irony. The characters are powerless to change their qualities, but know it and are just having fun going through the motions. This energy makes it hard not to be amused by their plight. It does not quite embrace that same level of irony that Hot Fuzz embraced, but then, saying that this film is bad because it is not as good as that masterful spoof is the equivalent of saying that this food is awful because it was not cooked by Emril. Why complain if I still enjoyed it?
There is a specific audience for this film. That is the people who like to go to Comic Con and who own original Star Wars posters. Some will dismiss it and go see Battle Los Angeles instead. They are making a mistake. The creators of Paul are smart and know that the people they appeal to will have IQs writing home about. Paul does exactly what it sets out to do – make people laugh.