SXSW 2011 Review: PAUL

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
March 14th, 2011

Still from Greg Mottola's Paul

Rating: 3/5

Writers: Nick Frost, Simon Pegg
Director: Greg Mottola
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio
Studio: Universal

Two British geeks cap off a trip to Comic-Con with a road trip through the badlands of the American Southwest’s most boring state (I can say that, I’m from Las Vegas), looking to gather snapshots of UFO hot spots and hilariously unoriginal bumper stickers. Socially awkward, epically without a clue, what could possibly go wrong for these two science fiction-obsessed dorks? Well, in Greg Mottola’s PAUL, a lot of things go wrong, but it’s all in service to a very funny (yet very insider-y) interspecies buddy flick.

Doing double duty as screenwriters and stars, real-life best pals Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunite yet again to bring their particular brand of rapid-fire geek speak humor to another genre flick. The boys have covered zombies (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) and cops (HOT FUZZ) to big laughs in the past, turning to an aliens-on-Earth project seems like a natural progression. Traveling back from San Diego, sci-fi aficionados Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) practically have an alien land on them (no, he’s not in a spaceship, he’s stolen a government issue sedan, he’s big into breaking rules). Paul (Seth Rogen) is a pot-smoking, wise-cracking little green man who has busted out of an Area 51 holding base after a number of years on Earth. He enlists Graeme and Clive to aid in his quest to the north, and the RV is off, fueled by equal parts chuckles and cheap beer.

Along the way, director Greg Mottola crafts a bevy of wacky and highly energetic action scenes, action scenes that even see some of the film’s best lines sprinkled in for maximum fun. It’s highly reminiscent of something like David Gordon Green’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, dirty and off-kilter, fun not meant for everyone. We also get to know our titular anti-hero; Paul has a number of skills that go far beyond what you may expect from a pot-smoking alien voiced by Seth Rogen. Surely, part of Paul’s appeal is the Rogen shtick, but there’s a lot more to his big-headed, bug-eyed character, enough that’s actually sort of emotionally appealing at times. The bulk of PAUL’s action comes thanks to the motley crew following the boys – from FBI agents to a angry Christian papa, there’s even some up-to-no-good rednecks to round out the cast of characters upping the ante (and laughs).

Beyond its three main stars, PAUL also benefits from a number of very funny, smaller performances. The supporting cast appears to have been put together thanks to some sort of Venn diagram that matches up recognizable talent with a giddy type of “wow!” factor. Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, and Sigourney Weaver all star as the FBI agents hot on Paul’s tail, though they’ve all got different motivations for their chase. Jeffrey Tambor has a memorable role as Adam Shadowchild, a sci-fi writer Graeme and Clive idolize, and even Jane Lynch pops up in a roadside diner (where else, really?). Mix in a winning performance from Kristen Wiig as Ruth Buggs, an RV park owner who ends up tangled with the boys and their trip (while also capturing Graeme’s eye), and PAUL has a charming comedic cast to keep it going once the gimmick wears off.

But more than anything, PAUL works when it works because it knows its audience – it’s chock-a-block with all sorts of geeky in-jokes, more nerd references than you shake a light saber at, and a keen understanding of what it feels like to be, well, just not cool. Its huge nods to Comic-Con culture will appeal to a certain subset of the geekosphere, and they will love PAUL all the more for it. But these are the sorts of things that may distance the film from a bigger audience – moments that will get huge roars of laughter from fans of Pegg and Frost, devotees of Battlestar Galactica, and the comic book kids may leave other moviegoers feeling more than just cold, but actually alienated.

PAUL also suffers from some uneven sensibilities when it comes to what’s actually funny versus what can easily be perceived as offensive. One of the film’s many running jokes involves strangers mistaking Graeme and Clive for lovers, equal parts “it’s okay if you are!” and unabashed redneck terror pop up in terms of reactions, but it still feels like a cheap gag for a film that has already proven itself to be much, much smarter. But if PAUL doesn’t back down from flimsy gay jokes, it certainly has no problem ragging on the Christian right, either. Ruth is a hardcore, church-going, God-fearing lady, with a papa who totes a rifle and a Bible with equal familiarity. In a film where the central character is an alien, the religious nuts who abhor evolutionary theory are not going to win, and Ruth gets her Good Book-fed beliefs nearly kicked out of her, and PAUL doesn’t let us forget it for a minute.

PAUL feels destined to fit neatly into Pegg and Frost’s canon of buddy flicks gone wild – fresh fodder for geeks who like their films layered with both inside jokes and self-reflexivity. These Brits have made careers out of putting together funny movies that also have a beating heart – bromances for boys, giggles for the geeks, something for anyone smart enough to watch.

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  • Shaun Smith

    Paul was a good mix of British and American humor. Seth Rogan nailed Paul down, and it was nice to hear Seth but not have to see Seth. I never saw the movie in theaters, I am a person that doesn’t mind waiting for movies to come to DVD or if I forget about them when they come to the pay TV providers. Which is what happened in this case, I had totally forgotten about Paul until I was on the Cinemax page on DISH online. Remembering I am idiot I wanted to watch it, so I started it up and enjoyed a great comedy. It didn’t have the uncontrollable laughter that I was hoping for, but it did have a few parts where you couldn’t help but laugh. . I even told the movie nerd I work with at DISH that I watched the movie, he also was generally unimpressed with the movie, but he didn’t like the movie even as much as I did, something about the British humor he didn’t like.

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