As any regular reader of my reviews knows I am a massive fan of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. “Spaced” is one of the most wonderful and surreal TV shows ever conceived and “Shaun of the Dead” is a modern classic. Their crowning achievement however is the 2007 action-comedy spectacular (and Bob Award winner for Best Picture) “Hot Fuzz.” It was an endlessly funny satire of genre conventions that worked as the very thing it was satirizing. Meanwhile Pegg and Frost further established themselves as one of the great comedy duos not just now but ever. This is why it pains me so much to say that their newest film, “Paul,” just doesn’t quite connect.
This isn’t to say that it’s a bad film because it’s not and there are several very good things about it. But those elements don’t come together to make an overall good movie. Before examining what went right and what went wrong let’s take a quick overview of the story.
Clive (Frost) and Graeme (Pegg) have been best friends since childhood and besides sharing a life-long love of science fiction they have always wanted to travel to America to take a road trip together. Using Comic-Con in San Diego as their starting point the two Brits are at last fulfilling their fantasy of visiting all of the southwestern UFO landmarks in an RV. Imagining how he might react upon meeting an extraterrestrial, Clive suggests he’d be cool as a cucumber. Little does he know that theory is going to be put to the test in a matter of moments. Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) is a little green man on the run with G-man Zoil (Jason Bateman) hot on his tail when he happens to cross paths with these two guys who want to believe. As it turns out though Clive’s reaction isn’t exactly what he’d expected.
Written by Pegg and Frost and directed by Greg Mottola (“Superbad” and “Adventureland,” two films I’m also an enormous fan of), “Paul” starts off surprisingly slow and while it picks up it falls short in ways I wouldn’t have expected given the talent involved. For one it’s never quite funny enough. Moments that you just know are going to be brilliantly funny manage to illicit little more than a smile, if they even get that. Many interesting ideas about the characters are introduced but not quite as well explored as they ought to be. This is probably more to do with the film’s edit than the script which probably developed these elements fully.
As expected “Paul” is chock full of movie, TV, and comic book references, but unlike in “Spaced,” “Shaun,” or “Fuzz,” they feel shoehorned in rather than being a part of the movie’s fabric. In those the references were jokes within jokes and if you didn’t catch them it didn’t really matter. They were movie geek icing. Something to give you a laugh with your laugh. I’m not sure but if I had to guess I’d say the problem is that this time Pegg and Frost are missing Edgar Wright’s touch. Maybe Mottola just doesn’t quite have the knack for making references dance into the film the way Wright has.
Another problem is Kristen Wiig’s character, a repressed woman who the boys meet and are sort of forced to kidnap along the way. She begins to let go of her inhibitions, mainly by swearing a lot. The problem isn’t the swearing or even the idea that she’s coming up with some rather odd combinations. It’s actually quite funny. At first. But it goes through the whole film and becomes a tired gag rather quickly. I don’t normally say this but I really did feel like much of the profanity in “Paul” was just there for the sake of it. It’s another thing that I found quite surprising given that Pegg, Frost, and Mottola have a history of making swearing feel natural and logical in their previous efforts.
As for what I liked, it was nice to see Frost playing an intelligent guy for once and he does it every bit as well as he played the doofus in “Shaun” and “Fuzz.” His interplay with Pegg is as strong as ever and Pegg handles the awkward romance between his character and Wiig’s nicely. Paul is also a terrific character, wonderfully brought to life through Rogen’s voice work and the visual effects team. Paul still looked like a special effect but I completely bought into him and never felt as though I was watching anyone talking to a tennis ball on a stick.
Mottola is not really known for directing action sequences (unless you count the “fastest kid alive” scene from “Superbad”) and he handles those moments well while also giving us some pretty impressive explosions. It makes me wonder though if all of his attention to that caused him to lose his grip on the comedy or the characters, things he handled impeccably in “Superbad” and “Adventureland.”
It really is a terrible shame that “Paul” doesn’t quite gel because there was so much potential here. And while some of it does work too much of it almost does. In fact if you asked me to describe “Paul” in one word that would be it. Almost.
I look forward to what Pegg, Frost, Mottola, and the rest offer us next. I have a feeling that they won’t miss again. 6.5/10