Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's screenplay for Paul reads like the sort of film their characters from Spaced would write. But then, apart from fictional flourishes to make the characters work in a sitcom, Tim Bisley and Mike Watt have always essentially been Pegg and Frost themselves. Some might point to this as a weakness of range, but it takes courage not only to play oneself on-screen but to put a friendship up for critique before the eyes of millions.
And if Paul accomplishes nothing else, it proves that Pegg and Frost share the finest chemistry in contemporary comedy. Married couples do not have the same energy and believability on-screen as these two dorky Englishmen; even when delivering the most obviously set-up punchline, their interplay makes every exchange fresh, natural and, nine times out of 10, hilarious.
Sadly, that may be indeed all that Paul manages. Originally scripted by the two friends to be something vaguely "dark," the finished product, directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland), never finds its groove. Essentially a road trip movie that so happens to be set in Steven Spielberg's filmography, Paul uses its stoner take on E.T. to open up endless references of every geek hallmark of the last 40 years. After a prologue meant to recall Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the movie steps outside of referencing other films and moves the action to the San Diego Comic-Con, a real-life event constructed around nerd love for science fiction and pretty much all other genre entertainment.
Pegg and Frost play Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, respectively, two laddish man-children from England using Comic-Con as the first stop on their tour of the southwest United States and its series of reported UFO sightings. As soon as they pass Area 51, however, they get more than they bargained for when a little green man calling himself Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) asks for their help.
The first half of Paul generally adheres to the style of comedy Mottola displayed in Superbad, mixing reference humor, gross-out gags and heat waves of awkward male introversion into a stream of madcap profanity. Paul turns out to be laid-back, sardonic and -- in classic British understatement on Pegg's part -- "a bit rude." Pegg and Frost delve so deeply into their reverence for science fiction that they emerge out the other side by suggesting such major pop culture icons as E.T. and Agent Mulder from The X-Files came from Paul's massive head, repositioning the usual canard of extraterrestrial beings bringing us scientific enlightenment to more esoteric, nerdy foci.
Yet for a creature hiding from government agents hellbent on splitting his skull open after metaphorically picking his brain for six decades, Paul does not seem overly concerned with capture, constantly walking around outside making loud chat in Rogen's booming growl and barking laugh. His attitude clashes with his frequent panic over discovery, and this disconnect marks the first (but not last) time the script sacrifices coherence and consistency for quick jokes.
Just as this looseness with character and narrative threatens to send this movie off the road, however, Kristen Wiig arrives as a Jesus-freak RV-park operator unwittingly lured into the trio's journey, to a smitten Graeme's delight and abject terror. Her Bible-thumping denial of alien life makes for a fresh few minutes of comedy, and some daring humor for American audiences not used to seeing Christians so openly mocked in a mainstream film; in the film's funniest exchange of dialogue, Paul lays out the particulars of evolution in machine-gun lines of withering condescension as Ruth shouts "Demon!" and sings "Amazing Grace." The boys even point out the riskiness of this humor when Paul warns against taking her along despite the necessity of doing so. "This is America," he moans. "Kidnapping a Christian is worse than harboring a fugitive!"
Wiig, perhaps the funniest actress working today, livens the film as the slowly progressing Ruth, her blend of repressed naïveté and budding connection to the world her father hid from her leads to numerous moments of awkward assimilation that would seem clichéd if Wiig were not so deft at playing them. However, too many of her lines play on the joke that she's just learned to curse and loves it, leading to repetitive and dull lines of Wiig throwing together random clusters of naughty words in hi-LAR-ious combinations for the rest of the film. Still, her presence considerably brightens the film, and Wiig's performance will make yet more fall in love with her and only strengthen the crushes the rest of us already have.
The entire cast excels, to be honest. Bill Hader, who, with Wiig, is easily the highlight of the current iteration of Saturday Night Live, gets the chance to show off some more of his underrated range. Known on SNL for his impersonations, Hader here continues to evolve after his wild performance in Adventureland, where he played the hair-trigger theme park owner who could snap at any instant. His hapless rookie agent is a full reversal from that role, but it allows Hader to show how well he handles more straightforward, even deadpan comedy after proving himself a gifted mimic and a manic performer. Paired with the always delightful Joe Lo Truglio, Hader creates an inverse of the buddy relationship between Pegg and Frost with a more classical comic duo setup of put-upon straight man and clowning buffoon. (Hader and Lo Truglio are the best secondary duo since Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody in last year's Cop Out, and they have the added burden of playing against the pure chemistry of Pegg and Frost's actual chemistry.)
Jason Bateman also gets to push his smarminess to the extreme as the head agent in pursuit of Paul. His Zoil does not exude intimidating force and knowledge so much as the ability to break others down through insults. He reminds me of that old Monty Python sketch about the gangster who tortured those who crossed him with sarcasm and bathos. Overseeing all is a not-so-mysterious female voice intent on bringing Paul's body back into the lab for testing; her climactic reveal opens the doors for references of the one major sci-fi franchise not brought up before the end.
Everyone here has such energy and charm that it's surprising how hollow the film ultimately feels. Part of this can be traced to the sudden gear shift in the second half that turns the raunchy drive through the flat, UFO-scanned Midwest into a near-bloodbath with a series of grisly deaths that are too grim to be funny yet too sudden and without context to carry any meaning. Pegg and Frost's original conception of the script purportedly incorporated more of the darker side seen in the last third into the whole film, but the lighter tone of the earlier slapstick makes the final version devastatingly uneven. Paul ultimately takes the key flaw of the Superbad-esque movie -- R-rated juvenilia and geekiness giving way suddenly to serious talks about friendship and one's future -- to its endpoint, careening so wildly between multiple shots of a CGI butt crack to horrifying deaths that one forgets the original point of the movie.
What makes this drastic transition all the more jarring is the degree to which Paul lets itself fall into familiar joke patterns, with some gags simply repeated without alteration throughout. Clive, who once won an award for his own sci-fi book, has struggled for years with the sequel, but he does have a cover drawn by Graeme*. That cover prominently displays an alien woman with three breasts, prompting outbursts of "Awesome!" whenever someone sees it. Paul gets off several boner jokes and Wiig's aforementioned madlib swearing grows wearisome nearly an hour before it finally stops. Paul contains so many clever and unique takes on overdone Star Wars references (even down to a country-bluegrass version of the Mos Eisley Cantina theme) that its eventually stagnation in these repeated jokes disappoints all the more. Clearly, these guys had it in them to keep writing fresh material.
These failings sadly undermine what might have been a slight but fiendishly fun ride from the best double act working today. It is indeed fun for a time, but by the end the references became too broad, too present for the sake of being references, and the repetition of jokes and gags made the film sag. Still, the performances are all fantastic, and Pegg and Frost are so good at what they do that they can turn a sappy expression of man love into something truly touching and make even the most tired dick-'n'-fart jokes funny by dint of their delivery and rapport. By the end, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that, for the first time, I saw Pegg and Frost playing about in their love of other people's movies without any examination or subversion of them. Maybe they need Wright's own writing ability to steer them straight, or at least his intuitive camera.
Still, I have to like a film that bluntly addresses the absurdity of fears of anal probing ("What can I possibly learn from an ass?!") and also lets its stars, cooped up in an RV for days on end, look like they've actually lived in an RV and not just stepped out of their makeup trailer. These touches almost make the film worth watching again, provided I stop about 2/3 of the way through. But I laughed, dear readers, and often, and I got all the Pegg and Frost I desired. That counts for something; just not as much as I'd have liked.
*I wondered throughout if Graeme's artistic ability was a nod to Pegg's role on Spaced or if Pegg simply likes the idea of being an illustrator for genre fiction.