Aspiring illustrator Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and wannabe sci-fi writer Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) are in geek paradise when they visit Comic-Con in San Diego. In an attempt to get the most out of their American Southwest excursion and add a perfect addition to their recent visit to the sci-fi and fantasy heaven, they plan a road trip in a rented RV to visit all of the Southwest’s most famous UFO hot spots, from Nevada’s Area 51 to Roswell, New Mexico.
En route, they almost collide with a speeding car that quickly runs off the road. To their amusing shock the driver turns out to be laidback stoner alien Paul (voiced by the aptly cast Seth Rogen). Assuring Graeme and Clive that he’s in trouble and needs help, Paul joins the two men and they set off with high-ranking secret government officials hot on their heels.
A budding “bromance” sci-fi road movie, Paul (2011) was the first time Simon Pegg and Nick Frost had headlined a movie without homeboy director Edgar Wright on board. As many of you will know, the trio had previously worked on big-screen post-modern genre outings Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), as well as the influential Channel 4 sitcom Spaced. But some may not know that this was the first time that Pegg and Frost had worked on a script together (Pegg and Wright were the creators of Shaun and Fuzz).
With this in mind then, it was a hard ask to expect their usual hilarity and on-screen chemistry to brush off onto the pages as well as it had done in the past, especially when usual collaborator and close friend Wright wasn’t at the helm. So does Paul match or even surpass the success of the duo’s previous humble offerings? Commercially, it excels, but critically, I was left wanting something more.
Whilst the story about two English travelers who coincidently come across and then harbor a fugitive alien across the American Southwest does sound like the perfect stomping ground for the jovial Pegg and Frost, they understandably, but somewhat arrogantly, aim too big (which inherently comes with a multi-million dollar US production) and the script doesn’t seem as tight and controlled as it should be.
In various instances it comes across as far too contrived, some sort of unnatural progression from the kernels of their decidedly British previous films. In particular there were a number of loose ends and unnecessary sequences of exposition throughout the film – an example being the redundancy of the two red necks that badger our protagonists near the beginning of the feature as well as Ruth Buggs’ (Kristen Wiig) sudden disavowal of intelligent design and embrace of hedonism being clunkily written.
This being said though, there were a number of highly enjoyable and engaging scenes and at times Paul has the hallmarks of the movies which brought Pegg and Frost into the public consciousness. For instance, as we have come to expect, Paul is incredibly inter-textual, working as a pastiche of 80s sci-fi ventures, the most obvious being Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) as well as cramming in gaggy allusions to movies of all kinds from Reservoir Dogs (1992) to Lorenzo’s Oil (1992).
In one of the best lines and laugh-out-loud moments of the movie, Paul (when walking down the street holding hands with Graeme and Clive) even makes a fleeting reference to their actions as being indicative of the Friedmans’ – a family convicted of child molestation and the story of which was made into an Oscar-nominated documentary, Capturing the Friedmans (2003) by Andrew Jarecki. Quite rightfully these pop-culture assimilations by the audience gives the film (as Christopher Suter pointed out in his theatrical release review of the film for CineVue) “an endearing and familiar quality and, despite not being a true companion piece to any of the earlier Wright/Pegg collaborations, certainly feels like one in spirit at times.”
The cast is made up of a mixture of industry heavyweights as well as some of the more underrated comic actors working today. Director Greg Mottola has brought in many familiar faces from his teen hits Superbad (2007) and Adventureland (2009), including Bill Hader who gives a worthy performance as FBI agent Haggard. There’s even Jeffrey Tambor, albeit in somewhat of a droll cameo. The casting of Rogen was obvious but works wonderfully and in his usual jovial mode he delivers some of the best lines of the movie. But it’s Saturday Night Live regular, Kristen Wiig, who impresses most here with a bravura display of comic timing.
Paul isn’t Shaun or Fuzz, but it was never meant to be. It’s amiable, lazy fun but importantly avoids being popcorn schlock. However, even in saying this I felt something wasn’t “Wright”.