Review: ‘Paul’ Is Closer to Home Than Out of This World

By  · Published on March 18th, 2011

There’s an old hobby that most everyone shares of creating dream teams. Maybe it’s figuring out the best possible basketball players to toss onto one roster (which dominates the Olympics in the 90s), maybe it’s thinking up physics-defying, time-travel-based bands which see Robert Plant playing with Buddy Rich and Townes Van Zandt, maybe it’s seeing some of the best in the comedy business come together to merge styles and create a movie.

Paul is what it’s like when worlds collide. The dry, awkward humor of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost coming together under satire and humanistic comedy of director Greg Mottola with a healthy blend of Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen, and Jason Batemen in tow.

The results don’t explode into orbit, but the movie is as enjoyable as any other standard road trip comedy out there.

Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) are two nerds heading out from Comic-Con on a road trip to the famous UFO sites of the desert west, but things go awry when their RV runs across a alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) who seems to be channeling Owen Wilson’s character from You, Me, and Dupree. They’re joined by a fundamentalist Christian named Ruth (Kristen Wiig) as they ramble north, being pursued by agents in black.

The opening of this movie is complete inertia. Frost and Pegg have written themselves as the bland main characters in a world populated by much funnier people. They go through the checklist of “geeky” things at Comic-Con before being “geeky” on their UFO tourist trek. Through that, you don’t get to know who they are beyond their stereotype, and the energy is just not there to begin with. They’re in a holding pattern until Seth Rogen holds his breath and breathes a ton of life into the stale wasteland by being carefree and hilarious. This trend continues with Joe Lo Truglio and Bill Hader who play the Keystone Cops of the CIA and make the bumbling police gag seem fresh. The same goes for Jason Bateman who tucks away any sense of a smile into his breast pocket along with his badge to play the stoic badass on the hunt. The same goes double for Kristen Wiig whose character Ruth feels forced when she’s carrying the cross or trying to curse, but who shines whenever she lets loose.

Pegg and Frost both have moments where their charisma has no option but to burst through, but it’s the script (written by them) that fails to make them interesting figures, and that’s a shame. The Comic-Con bits are non-important book ends that don’t have anything to do with the rest of the story, so the opening ends up being a context-less montage of two guys taking pictures of themselves in front of things.

The dichotomy between what works and what doesn’t isn’t rocket surgery. When the movie goes for gags, they fall flat, but when the adventure of the road trip takes over, the excitement and danger of the journey work just as well as the jokes that emerge. The forced isn’t funny, but the natural is. There are times when the actors seem like they’re working and times when they look like they’re all having fun, and it’s not hard to guess which gets better results.

Fortunately, the action/adventure takes over halfway through, and the rest is a thrilling chase that’s surprisingly touching in moments (specifically with every second Blythe Danner is on screen as a woman Paul knew from the past) and incredibly (space man) ballsy in its plot direction.

The sci-fi references are there, but they’re not overbearing. Fortunately, Paul gives up the goods without devolving into a pop cultural hell, although the Sigourney Weaver cameo is completely wasted in a world of saturated movie news (and because we hear her voice a ton before actually seeing her).

Like Greg Motolla’s other movies (except for Superbad), there are a lot of scenes that play out emotionally or don’t stick the landing on the laugh on purpose. Adventureland wasn’t exactly a gut-buster, and that tone translates here a few times. He seems to be a director fascinated with the awkward, which is why teaming with Pegg and Frost ultimately works. Motolla seems happy to throw people out of their comfort zones and watch them try to find their bearings. There’s also a lack of spectacle in his other work that features here as well. For all the fireworks of the ending, some of the road that leads there is about as flat and noteworthy as an extra-terrestrial with your neighbor’s name.

That’s the cleverness here. Pegg and Frost take things that are fantastical (like aliens from outer space) and turn them into the everyday. Unfortunately, toning things down also has the unwelcome consequence of things being toned down. That’s just not the best position to be in when searching for The Funny.

Paul is the kind of movie that wins you over, though. It seems ho-hum at the beginning, but it slowly builds and fills out with warm characters, a daring mission, and some literally explosive scenes. As a partnership, Motolla, Pegg and Frost seem less interested in delivering straight laughs than in making people tear-up at a comedy and in challenging a few other genre perceptions. With a tighter introduction and a little less reliance on running jokes, this movie could have been near perfect, but it ends up simply being a lot of fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Upside: Pegg and Frost eventually show their talent, everyone involved is funny, the adventure is huge, the stakes are high, and the long strange trip pays off.

The Downside: A first act that’s as quick as frozen molasses, stereotypes, a few easy jokes, and running jokes are over-used.

On the Side: There’s a great reference for Alien fans waiting at the end of the rainbow. Plus, Nick Frost’s hair is incredibly luxurious in this movie.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.