'Paul' Comes in Pieces
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In "Paul," the new alien-slacker-road-trip comedy from Greg Mottola ("Superbad," "Adventureland"), Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play Graeme and Clive, two British sci-fi nerds on an RV tour of the American West. Starting at San Diego's Comic-Con with planned stops at fabled sites like Roswell, N.M., their plans go awry when they pick up a hitchhiker, Paul, a space alien who crashed back in '47 and has been under the care of the U.S. government ever since. Paul looks like the traditional alien-mythology "small gray" (big head, spindly body) and talks like ... Seth Rogen. As Rogen's nasal, knowing voice issues pop references from a high-tech CGI creation ("It's not like I set my phaser to 'faint!'" he exclaims after his mere presence makes Clive pass out), you keep waiting for him to stop making jokes and start creating character moments or any sense of Paul as anything other than a very expensive sock puppet. And that never quite happens. Pegg and Frost's script feels a little lazy, here and elsewhere, and that takes a lot of the potential fun out of the film before it even starts.
In fact, almost every joke here wheezes like a fat person going up a flight of stairs, and can be heard coming from about as far away. Frost and Pegg have written together before -- "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," as well as the excellent Brit-com "Spaced" -- and while those projects all had real characters inside their snap-crackle-pop-culture references, something about "Paul" feels underbaked, like a project the two had half-formed in their heads and blurted out in studio meetings after their first successes when asked if they had anything else in the works. It's C-minus work from people who normally deliver A-level efforts.
And yet there are some comedy ideas in "Paul" that score, like when Kristen Wiig's holy-roller trailer park manager, Ruth, gets a mind-meld with Paul that instantly secularizes her: Once a space alien has poured the secrets of the cosmos into your head like it was a Big Gulp cup, it's hard to hang on to your Old Testament belief that the Earth is "4,000 years old." As Wig snaps free from her old life --"I plan on doing a lot of fornicating," she notes -- she's given a lot of room to be funny, which she takes advantage of. But Pegg and Frost don't get nearly as interesting -- their relationship feels recycled from their earlier projects -- and Wiig's inventive journey isn't enough to bump the comedic inertia of the film out of its doldrums.
"Paul" also feels like a movie made of other movies -- shots out of Spielberg, quotes from "Star Wars" and "Alien," scenery borrowed from "Close Encounters." That's not necessarily a bad thing -- part of the fun of a project like this is having it play with familiar pop-culture moments to knock a bit of the dust off them -- but when that's all the film does, it's a facade with no foundation. The cast looks impressive on paper -- supporting players include Jane Lynch, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio -- but again, they're underused. (Bateman in particular is saddled with a gag that epitomizes the laziness of the enterprise, all buildup for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it payoff.)
Paul himself is technically impressive: He looks fake only when leaping or running, in the way that most CGI creations don't match real gravity especially well; too bad it distracts from a great time-zone joke. And Pegg and Frost's charm is still real, even if their sparkling, early-career bro-mance now feels more like a dinged-up, late-stage bro-lationship. Mottola keeps things moving swiftly -- he has to, or else the ramshackle construction of the film would implode -- all the way to the inevitable climax, which feels less like characters standing at a point of resolution than it does a group of actors waiting around for someone to yell, 'Cut!' "Paul" has flashes of wit, and it's peppered throughout with hints of the better film it could have been, but the laughs in it mostly make you wish it had more laughs to offer. It's a comedic close encounter, but it's not quite close enough.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.