Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 5, 2015

Recent Watches: Paul (2011)

The movies Simon Pegg makes with Edgar Wright are critically well received, commercially successful, and beloved by fans. The movies Simon Pegg makes without Edgar Wright are… Less so. The mildly entertaining flicks, like “A Fantastic Fear of Everything” or “Burke and Hare,” stand in contrast to truly bad ones, like “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.” Most of them, like “Run Fatboy Run,” are completely forgettable. Yet when “Paul” was announced, I had reason to be hopeful. Pegg was directly involved with the production, co-writing it. More importantly, his BFF Nick Frost was along for the ride, co-starring and co-penning. Add a crass alien voiced by Seth Rogen to the mix and we should’ve been good to go, right? Well… Like most of Pegg’s solo journeys, “Paul” was decently amusing but ultimately failed to make much of an impression on anyone.

Graeme and Clive are two sci-fi nerds who come to America for Comic-Con. Clive is a would-be author while Graeme, his best friend, is a comic artist. The two are also UFO buffs. After Comic-Con is over, they rent an RV and set out on a road trip, stopping by Area 51 and continuing on to Roswell, New Mexico. They’re in for a surprise though. While outside Area 51, they witness a car crash and soon pick up a genuine alien. Nicknamed Paul, he wants the boys to help him get home. Meanwhile, a trio of government agents are on their trail.

“Paul” was not really sold on the wacky alien antics, though that didn’t hurt. What really attracted people to the movie was Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s enduring bromance. There’s no doubt that “Paul’s” silly heart is built upon Simon and Nick’s chemistry. An early scene of the two sharing a hotel room together positively recalls the bubbling homoeroticism of “Hot Fuzz.” When Graeme’s interest in Paul threatens to break the two up, the actor’s real life friendship keep the ship stable, the script handling the potential schism with maturity and focus. Graeme and Clive are huge nerds and “Paul” has an uncertain opinion of nerdiness. The film plays the nerdy stereotypes a little too straight. The guys are obsessed with three-breasted alien women, cheap novelty swords, “Star Trek,” and sci-fi novels with ridiculous names. One character makes a passing reference to “manga faggots.” “Paul” claims to be a loving ode to best buds and nerdiness. Only one of those claims seem confident.

The film handles its title character relatively well. Paul is a deeply irrelevant take on the grey alien. He smokes pot, cracks dick jokes, and makes light-hearted pop culture references. An amusing gag has much of modern alien fiction being derived from Paul. “E.T.” was inspired by him, in a funny sequence featuring a cameo from Steven Spielberg. So was “Predator,” since Paul has a natural cloaking device. But only while he holds his breath, leading to one of the funniest scenes in the film. Mostly, Paul is a Seth Rogen character. Rogen’s easy-going vocals work well for the part. Some of the character’s most memorable bits are not the big one-liners but more laid back scenes, like Paul talking to Clive while he grills some sausages. There’s a downside to Rogen’s participation though. Too often, there’s a mean-spirited sense of vulgarity to “Paul.” Did we really need the jokes about alien dick size? Or anal probing? Or how about the awfully overwrought debate of science versus religion that is awkwardly inserted into the film? Paul isn’t bad, even with his healing powers being an obvious Chekov’s Gun. He’s funny but not always likable or fully formed.

Each of the films in the Cornetto Trilogy is a spin on a well-known genre. So it’s tempting to consider “Paul” a riff on alien contact flicks. And it sort of is. However, the film is more like a goofy take on the road trip movie. The film even blatantly references “Easy Rider,” when the group gets high around a camp fire. The trip takes the gang from San Diego Comic Con to the Black Mailbox, the Little A'Le'Inn, into Roswell, and ending at Devils Tower. Some of these elements are fun, like the gang trying to sneak Paul through a busy Roswell street. Others are less successful, like the duo of rednecks our heroes keep running into. “Paul” even bursts into a car chase in its latter half, with gunshots and explosions. Mostly, the scenes of Graeme, Clive, and Paul hanging out while traveling are the breeziest, best parts of the film.

Aside from Pegg, Frost, and Rogen, the film packs in a solid supporting cast. Jason Bateman seemingly plays the film’s villain, a very cold agent with a steely focus on his mission. Bateman brings some chilly comic skills to the part. There’s an awkward reveal with his character, that doesn’t entirely work. Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio play the agents under Bateman. There’s some parallels between Hader/Truglio and Pegg/Frost, especially Truglio’s increasingly nerdy personality. The two parts are a bit underdeveloped though. Kristen Wigg plays the uber-religious woman Clive and Graeme meet on their trip. She develops into Graeme’s love interest and is an arguably unneeded part. Wigg is fine, good even, but her character is one of the weaker aspects of the film. Blythe Danner probably gives my favorite performance in the film, as the old woman who discovered Paul. The pay-off to her plot is especially touching. Sigourney Weaver plays a similar character to her part in the same year’s “Cabin the Woods.” Both times, Weaver’s appearance is treated like a surprise. (“Cabin” skipped the obvious “Aliens” reference though.)

No matter how many times I watch it, “Paul” is always slightly disappointing. It had so much potential. The combo of Pegg, Frost, and a pot-smoking alien should have been a home run. And maybe with Edgar Wright behind the wheel of the Winnebago, it would’ve been. Still, Pegg and Frost go a long way. “Paul” is occasionally clever, funny, or even sweet. Sometimes, it’s also dumb, crass, and undercooked. Not a classic but not without its moments, the film is somewhere in the middle of the road. [6/10]

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