Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have a bit of a cottage industry going on in which they move from genre to genre making films that simultaneously belong to the genre in question while gently mocking the conventions therein. It’s been a good combination for them, and one that’s endeared them to genre fans because the duo’s efforts, even when lambasting a genre, are so obviously invested with a love for the target that it doesn’t offend. It’s the difference between a stranger mocking your love handles and your grandma doing so.
Pegg and Frost applied their formula to zombie films (Shaun of the Dead) and buddy cop movies (Hot Fuzz) and now turn their attention to first contact science fiction with Paul. It’s a hilarious film, and while it has its warts, it holds up well to both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
The story plays out as the trailer sets it up. Pegg and Frost play sci-fi nerds on a vacation to Comic-Con. They end up on a road trip with an alien named Paul and Kristen Wiig, all while being chased by secret government agents and an ensemble of others who they piss off along the way. It’s easy to just say “and hilarity ensues” but it sells short just how funny the film is. It sets out to do something funny every other sentence and while some jokes inevitably fall flat, there’s a manic comic energy that twists the dial to eleven in the opening scene and doesn’t let it waver all the way through the credits.
The chemistry between Pegg and Frost makes the movie. These are two skilled comic actors who personally have been friends for nearly twenty years, and the level of timing and interplay between the two is simply unmatched. At this point they could make a film about the two of them reading a phone book and it would still be hilarious.
Seth Rogen’s Paul is a fantastically rendered CGI creation and it is amazing how seamlessly the movie integrates him. There is never a lapse in which the audience loses the suspension of disbelief over the physical reality of the alien. The character is pitch perfect at both comedy and in layering in references so densely that one can’t tell where the line is between self aware joker and oblivious reference maker.
Yet at the same time Paul is also a weak element of his own film, not because he leaves so many questions unanswered, but because the questions never seem to come up in the first place. We’ve got two sci-fi geeks making first contact with an alien and not once do they ask what Paul’s world is like, what his real name is, why he came to Earth in the first place. It would have been fine if they used these sorts of questions to tee up jokes and never really answered them, but the fact that they were not answered at all nibbles at the film’s foundation. See, what made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz brilliant was that while they were funny, they were also excellent zombie and buddy cop films, respectively. Paul is funnier than those two films, but it also works in its genre less than they do.
The most disappointing part of the film though is Kristen Wiig’s character. She’s got great comedic chops, but the humor written for her character basically revolves around the same joke told over and over again. When an innocent and sweet character blurts out profanity, it’s a humorous disconnect. When that same character does the same thing once per minute for a hundred minutes, that’s just lazy writing, and when you do it with as talented a comedian as Wiig, it’s just a waste.
There are so many science fiction references in Paul that if the next reboot of a classic science fiction film puts in a reference to Paul, the universe might very well collapse in the resultant recursive reference density. There’s a stretch late in the film in which I realized that fifteen minutes had passed in which I laughed a good two dozen times, and every single laugh was from a reference to another science fiction film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely a different category of humor.
This makes the review component a very simple recipe. If you enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz you will in all likelihood enjoy Paul. If you are also a hopeless sci-fi geek, you will probably love this movie.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.