by Mel Valentin
As onscreen comedy duos go, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Brits both and veterans of TV ("Spaced") and film ("Hot Fuzz," "Shaun of the Dead"), are, or at least were, among the most consistently brilliant, at least in the last decade. Their combination of dry verbal wit, wordplay, and pop culture references (the geekier the better), and physical comedy, endeared them to tens of thousands, if not millions of moviegoers, geeks and non-geeks. Their third collaboration, "Paul," a science fiction parody structured around a feature-length homage to two of Steven Spielberg’s key contributions to the genre on film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial," promised more of the same. Unfortunately, the R-rated "Paul," an over-broad, awkward mix of Brit humor and American comedy, fails to deliver on that promise.Paul opens more than sixty years ago, as a preteen girl in Wyoming chases after her dog as a storm approaches. It’s not a natural storm, but one caused by the arrival of a flying saucer. Paul doesn’t return to that girl or those events until late in the film, when the title character, Paul (voiced by the ubiquitous Seth Rogen), tries to return home, E.T.-style. Before then, Paul takes a few parodic stabs at comic book/movie geeks and their annual pilgrimage to San Diego for Comic-Con International where Clive Gollings (Nick Frost), a Brit science-fiction writer, Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg), Clive’s best friend and illustrator, enjoy the sights and sounds (and, quite possibly the smells) of Geek Nirvana. They meet one of their favorite science-fiction writers, Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor), before embarking on the second, much longer, leg of their journey: a semi-focused jaunt via RV to slightly famous sites associated with alien visitations.
"Where, oh where, is Edgar Wright when he's needed most?"
The last thing they expect to encounter is a live alien, let alone one who not only speaks English, but is also conversant in pop culture, revels in profanity, smokes (both cigarettes and pot), and prefers to dress in cut-off shorts and sandals (shirts are optional, but rarely worn). Paul approaches Clive and Graeme after almost forcing their RV to crash. He pleads his case, claiming he’s being pursued by a Man in Black, Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman). He doesn’t reveal the reasons for his escape from his government captors, but moviegoers conversant with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, or The X-Files can guess (and guess correctly). Agent Zoil’s boss (overheard, but not seen until the penultimate scene) sends two inexperienced field agents, Haggard (Bill Hader) and O'Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio), to assist Zoil in apprehending Paul and returning him to the (presumably) super-secret government research facility Paul’s called home for sixty-odd years.
Paul figures in as the proverbial third wheel in the two-seat bicycle Clive and Graeme call their strictly hetero friendship (a recurring non-joke involves strangers assuming Clive and Graeme share a bed as well as geek interests). Graeme and Paul become fast friends, sharing pop culture jokes, but Clive hangs back, his reluctance masking jealousy. That goes up a notch with the introduction of the obligatory romantic interest (for Graeme, not Paul), Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a Christian fundamentalist who, along with her extremist father, Moses (John Carroll Lynch), run an RV park. Ruth inadvertently sees Paul, forcing the trio to temporarily kidnap her. Ruth’s fundamentalist beliefs give Pegg and Frost the perfect opportunity to skewer right-wing Christians (as if additional, over-obvious skewering was or is needed). But like everything that precedes and follows Ruth’s introduction, the broad attempts to mix British and American styles of humor fail more than they succeed, resulting in one disappointing non-joke or non-gag after another.
Key to that disappointment is the notable absence of Pegg-Frost collaborator Edgar Wright. Write co-wrote Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with Pegg. He also co-created Spaced, a BBC series about slacker-geeks. While Wright went off to adapt and direct Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a hit with critics, but not with ticket-paying audiences, Pegg and Frost turned to writer-director Greg Mottola to helm Paul. While Mottola has proven adept at directly a sex comedy (Superbad and a coming-of-age comedy (Adventureland), the mix of bromance, road movie, anti-fundamentalist satire, and geek/science fiction parody, proves to be too much for him to handle. Mottola’s loose directing style is the polar opposite of Wright’s hyperactive, hyperkinetic style. Wright used rapid-fire cuts, zooms, constant camera movement, and sound effects to raise the comedic stakes in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.The blame, however, lies primarily with Pegg and Frost’s script, a script that comes across as unfinished and unpolished. The core idea, at least superficially, seems sound, but Pegg and Frost do too little with the premise. The lack of almost complete urgency (and that’s even with the ineffectual Zoil and the newbie agents on their trail) adds an improvisatory quality to "Paul" that drains it of any emotional weight or significance, something that both "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" achieved with almost surprising ease. Instead, Pegg and Frost seemed content to ride on an obnoxious, profane CG alien and a constant stream of profanities (most, if not all, unoriginal), a sure sign that complacency, maybe even laziness, has afflicted Pegg and Frost’s on- and off-screen partnership.
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originally posted: 03/18/11 04:13:35